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Col. Lawrence Wilkerson and Paul Jay discuss how the media helps create a charade of democracy, and makes a fortune doing it

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

Well, election night in the United States reminds me a lot about a film I made a few years ago called Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, about Bret Hart and Vince McMahon and the battle within the World Wrestling Federation. Well, wrestling, as we all know–at least we all know now–is theater. But there’s a lot of fan magazines and other media associated with professional wrestling that make a lot of money out of professional wrestling, and they treat the theater as if it’s real.

Well, I think American electoral politics and much electoral politics in many countries is much like that. It’s mostly theater. There’s a war of rhetoric, a war of election campaign ads, and the media treats the theater as if it’s real. And it’s not just the campaigning. It’s while Congress and others are governing. The reality of power, the real interest beneath the politics, is rarely revealed in the media, and the media loves the partisan theater. Why? Because they make money out of it. Eighty percent of campaign donations apparently are going to buy television ads, so it’s not in television’s interest to pierce the veil of this theater.

Well, in wrestling, it’s not that there’s nothing at stake in the theater. If you’re a wrestler, your mic skills will determine whether you get ahead or not; if you can make the crowd pop, that will determine if you get ahead or not in the wrestling hierarchy. Well, it’s very much the same thing in politics. It’s got nothing to do [with] whether you know anything or not about the issues. Can you make the crowd pop? Can you make people vote for you?

Well, we’ve just finished a night of watching a horse race of that theater. And now to help us unravel some of it and deconstruct the process of it, we’re joined by Larry Wilkerson. Larry joins us from Falls Church, Virginia.

Larry is the former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary and regular contributor to The Real News.

Thanks for joining us, Larry.


JAY: Now, before we get into what happened election night, and as we’re doing this interview, the Republicans are about to take the Senate. They haven’t quite got enough seats, but everyone’s predicting they will. But let’s set that aside for a moment and talk about the process. You were someone that was in the inner workings of real power, I would say somewhat behind the theater. What do you make of this thing? I was going to say, Lee Atwater, who helped shape the Reagan campaign, the George Bush senior campaign, and George Bush Junior campaign and is credited with being one of the main inventors of attack ads, he called it wrestling too. He said it’s a battle between con artists.

WILKERSON: I think your metaphor, Paul, is absolutely spot on. It is theater. The real manipulation of power, the real abuse of power, the real use of power takes place behind this charade that is the–you might call it the charade of democracy. That’s essentially what we’ve made it. Elections, of course, are the least important aspect of democracy. The institutions, the culture, the society, the people, they’re the important aspects of democracy. But elections are something that we hype all the time, whether it’s in this country or other countries. We send observers and so forth. But I agree with that overall metaphor, that it’s mostly theater. And in this country, we do Shakespearean theater, if you will, because it’s true theater in this country.

JAY: So, while what’s being said in the campaigns are mostly just messaging and trying to come up with little catchy phrases and pick some wedge issue that will get people excited, I mean, very little to do with public policy and what real solutions are, that being said, it’s not that it’s theater without consequences. It does have some consequence who happens to win. So let’s get a bit into that. I mean, assuming the Republicans do take the Senate–and as we do the interview, it looks like they’re going to–does it matter?

WILKERSON: It’s a part of our system. You know, I was just listening to what you were saying, and I was parsing it even as you were saying it. We’ve got a huge tapestry that we vote across. It’s not as big as India’s, but it is in some ways very unique and very different from even India’s, the largest democracy in the world. When we do this, we do this and 50, 36, whatever number of states we do it in in whatever election, and each one of those is unique in its own way, it’s different in its own way. aND I would suggest to you that the voters who do go out, as I did this morning in Virginia to vote, go out for reasons other than what we might collectively say are substantial reasons, whether they be foreign policy or domestic.

So every election in this country is very local. It’s extremely local. And that’s why you get this sense of American disdain for the legislature, registered in some poll numbers that are now under 10, as I understand it, 9 percent, 8 percent, something like that, you get this disdain for the collective legislature. But you get this affection for, even, some of the local people who are running for that legislature. And therefore, when you put it all together, you get the old adage, for example, of I hate Congress, but, oh, I really love my particular congressman or I really like this person or I really like that person.

So it’s a part and parcel of the way we have distributed power federally and in the states across this country. I would submit to you there is no other country on the face of the earth that is like us in terms of our electoral process.

JAY: If you go back to when President Obama was elected and the real disgrace of the Bush-Cheney administration in every level, from foreign policy to economics, I mean, foreign policy leaving a complete disaster of the Iraq War, and on economics, certainly playing a big part in the crash of ’07 and ’08–of course, Bill Clinton helped contribute to that, but it was a total runaway train in terms of what elites in banking and so on could get away with with Bush-Cheney. Does it somewhat shock you, if you put your mind back then, that we’re in a place where the Republicans could actually control both houses?

WILKERSON: It does, because, as Gore Vidal said very eloquently at one point in his life, we’re the United States of amnesia. We don’t have any memory. We don’t have any retrospective look. Very few of us do, anyway. Most people do what they do, whether it’s vote or go to work or whatever, based on a very immediate, local set of circumstances. And going back to–.

JAY: But a lot of that has to do with the media. The media has to have a lot to do with that.

WILKERSON: Well, a lot of it does have to do with the media. It does have to do with the media. And when you have a media that is captured, basically, by the corporate interests in this country, then that media is not going to tell you much except that which keeps you in your somnolent state. And that’s really what our media does. It keeps us in an apathetic, somnolent state. The media has no interest in sparking real issues, in debating those issues, in discussing those issues, in parsing those issues so that you can see the meat and the blood and the bones of those issues. They don’t want to do that. My god, that might excite someone to actually become smart.

JAY: Yeah. It’s also like you take, like, the NBA or any of the professional sports leagues, where they do what they can to kind of even out the teams, because if the teams aren’t competitive, who wants to go pay money to go see basketball or football? I mean, the media has the same interest. If they don’t keep the Republicans and Democrats competitive, then who needs to spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on television advertising? So it’s in their interest to rehabilitate a party and not let it collapse completely.

WILKERSON: Absolutely. You just put your finger on the heart of things, too. One of my students asked me the other day: do you really think there’s that much difference in foreign-policy formulation between the Republicans and the Democrats? And, of course, my answer was no, there’s not. There’s hardly any distance between them. Oh, you can pick an issue here and an issue there–Iran comes to mind right and the current [set] of negotiations with that country, but you’re not going to find that big a divergence between either party. And I would even submit you’re not going to find that big a divergence with regard to what corporate interests dictate those politicians do between either party either. You’re going to find that there’s just as much responsibility, as you just pointed out, for the current economic problems in this country belonging to the Democrats–Chuck Schumer, Bob Rubin, Barney Frank, and a host of others–who engineered the disassembling of FDR’s protections during the Great Depression and afterwards, as there is amongst the Republicans, who were so explicit, if you will, in the way they fought war at the same time they didn’t raise any taxes and things like that. But they’re both complicit in the same kind of maneuvers, in the same kind of abuse of power for their own interest, for their very parochial, narrow individual interest, and for the larger and grander interests of the corporate interests whom they represent–big pharmacy, big food, big energy, and so forth.

JAY: Now, all this being said about the theater and where the real interest is and so on, I still find it fascinating how split the country is. Now, the media helps create that, as I go back to it, ’cause they create this, you know, he said, she said drama as if there’s two equal players here. And, frankly, while anyone who watches The Real News knows I’m no defender of the Democratic Party, on the whole there’s at least some logic to some of it. Most of what’s been coming from the Republicans over the last eight years of the administration and previous one and this administration, it’s not even logical, most of it. But that being said, the country’s 50-50. How do you explain it?

WILKERSON: I think the country’s a little bit less than 50-50. I think what you have is you have extremes in both parties–I would say the extreme in the Republican Party is a little larger than the one in the Democratic Party–and then you have this sort of huge middle ground. The middle ground, I think, is what’s doing things like putting Bernie Sanders in Vermont and Angus King in Maine, and maybe this new independent in–I think it’s Kansas. I think we’re going to see more of that. It’s going to be slow, but we’re going to see more of that, because polls show the growing political entity, if you will, in the United States is independence, not Republicans or Democrats. That’s a reaction to what you and I are talking about right now. It’s a slow, incremental reaction, and it’s not very satisfying for those of us would like to see major change fairly rapidly, but it is happening.

I suspect that over time, say, in the next 20 years or so, we’re going to see more than just a Tea Party. We’re going to see a fairly formidable central party that’ll develop out of this. And as has happened in the past, we may have that party replaced, one of the current existing parties, for the very reasons that we’ve been talking about, so that you do get some uniqueness, you do get some separation, you do get some real substantive debate, and you do have people who are out there for more than just the corporate interests that pay their election fees. I’m optimistic in that regard, anyway.

JAY: I’m optimistic too. But I want to correct something I said when I said the country was split. I should say the electorate is split, ’cause it’s somewhere–what, 30, 40, 50 percent of the country that could vote doesn’t vote.

WILKERSON: That’s absolutely true, and it’s been true for some time.

JAY: But if you look at polling on issues that isn’t based on registered voters, it’s just based on public opinion, the country is not centrist. It’s not center-right. The country is left-of-center on a whole host of issues, from when it comes to war and peace, domestic issues, even recent polling that’s just been in the newspapers over the last few days–a majority of people are for letting immigrants become legal who are here; they’re for a higher minimum wage–I mean, on various litmus-test issues. But on the other hand, the electorate still votes in a way that can give the Republicans the Senate.

WILKERSON: Well, there are so many reasons for this. One of the most blatant reasons, in-your-face reasons is the way we gerrymander and the way we set up districts. And both parties do it, but it just so happens that the Republicans, because they’ve had the governorships and they’ve had the state legislatures for quite a while now, and during the census, they’ve done it the most effectively for this period of time. It usually shifts generation after generation. And it will shift again, and it will probably favor the Democrats.

But right now, you have this incredible phenomenon across the country where you have lots of little, small districts, each of which is not safe for Republicans, but generally is winnable by Republicans, and then you have these large districts that are huge and are absolutely safe for Democrats, because this is the way that gerrymandering designed them, but they’re only that one district. And they’ve got just millions of people in them. It’s sort of like the analogy of Wyoming having two senators and 600,000 people and California having hundreds of–or not hundreds, but 38 million people and having two Senators, too. It’s [because of] that phenomenon that we actually have a party with a whole lot more power than its votes should give it, its available votes should give it.

If you couple that with what you just pointed out, that better than 50 percent of the electorate doesn’t even go vote–and if you’re looking at local elections, state elections, city councils today, parish and so forth elections, you’re looking at even less than that, sometimes as low as 7 to 11 percent going out and voting–then it’s really easy with money to capture the 5, 6, 8, 10, whatever percent you need of those voters who will go and vote and win that election. It’s incredible. We have the most apathetic democracy we’ve probably ever had. It’s always been this way to a certain extent, but I dare anyone to say that in 1896, for example, the electorate was as apathetic as it is today.

JAY: There’s also something to do with an urban rural split, is there not? The Republicans certainly seem to do better in small towns and rural areas, and the Democrats seem to do better in big cities.

WILKERSON: Yeah, that’s kind of what I was talking about. When you look at the way these things portion out, you will see a massive area–say, take New York, for example. You’ll see millions of people in there. That’s a safe seat for Democrats or safe seats for Democrats. But they don’t counterbalance, in terms of their voting power and the number of members they send to the Senate and the Congress, those little districts out there that are gerrymandered to be not safe for Republicans but winnable by Republicans–and they have been winning them. By the way, when 2016 comes around and we have our next third of the Senate vulnerable, the Democrats will probably with the Senate back. It’s simply because of what I’ve just explained, plus the fact that there’ll be far more Republican seats–as there were far more Democratic seats this time around–vulnerable in 2016.

JAY: Right. Okay, just finally and quickly, what consequences of the–let’s assume the Republicans control the Senate. As we’re doing it, they’re about to. Let’s assume they do.

WILKERSON: That’s what I tell the Canadians.

JAY: So does it matter? I guess the big thing will be chairmanships of committees in the Senate. That will be where the clout changes.

WILKERSON: Just looking down the list today sort of stunned me. It’s probably going to be McCain again in the Senate Armed Services. It’s probably going to be Bob Corker in Foreign Relations. Think about that for a minute. In health education, labor, and pensions, it’s probably going to be a little more Lamar Alexander. The Judiciary’s probably going to be Charles Grassley. Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson. Probably Appropriations will be Thad Cochran from Mississippi (that gives me a real vibration in my heart). Ag will be Pat Roberts if Roberts wins; if he doesn’t win, it’ll probably be Boozman. Budget’ll be Jeff Sessions from Alabama (that gives me some palpitations in my heart, too). Commerce, John Thune from South Dakota. Energy, Lisa Murkowski from Alaska (we know where she’ll go). Environment, the guy who is not sure about climate change, Jim Inhoffe from Oklahoma. That’s of lineup–many of whose reputations, inclinations, beliefs, what have you, rather frightened me–in charge of these committees.

Now, that said, I don’t think that having control of both houses with a minimal majority in the Senate, other than Mitch McConnell being Senate Majority Leader and doing some of the things he said which were quite frightening, like attaching a rider to every bill that comes up until he’s destroyed the Affordable Care Act and so forth, I don’t think it’s going to be that formidable, because the president was going to have to do things by executive fiat anyway in his last two years. And this will probably just encourage him to be more so that way.

The most for important foreign-policy issue right now that I’m tracking that may be influenced by this chairmanship change and this Senate majority leader change may be the negotiations with Iran. And that is truly serious if this desire to punish the president, which has been the Republicans’ major motivation for the past probably two years at least, and possibly even six, if that continues to be their major motivation and they just deny the national interests of this country in pursuing that motivation and derail these very successful negotiations with Iran. That will place us in probably one of the most dangerous international situations. With ISIS forces in Syria, and Iraq trying to stabilize that situation, and then turning off, literally turning off the relationship with the only stable country in Southwest Asia, and telling it to go its own route, and continuing the sanctions, and so forth, that’s a recipe for disaster in a region of the world where we have had enough disasters, thank you very much.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Larry.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.