The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, by Sidney Blumenthal
The Rise of the Counter-Establishment.
by Sidney Blumenthal.
Times Books. 369 pp. $19.95.
Sidney Blumenthal began his career as a political reporter by writing for “alternative” newspapers in the Boston area and contributing to magazines of the radical Left like the Nation and the Progressive. Toward the end of the 1970’s he became the Boston correspondent for In These Times, an “independent socialist newspaper,” published by the equally radical Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). Then, in the 1980’s, he began to contribute to such liberal periodicals as the New York Times Magazine and the New Republic, the latter of which eventually hired him to cover the 1984 presidential election campaign. There, his work caught the eye of the Washington Post, which soon hired him as a “national correspondent” with what seems a vaguely defined assignment. His by-line has since appeared both in the news section and in the paper’s Style section, where he specializes in exposés of conservatives, neoconservatives, and others seen to support the policies of the Reagan administration.
Now, Blumenthal has turned his special knowledge into a book about, in his words, “an event that is among the most startling and profound in modern American politics,” namely, “the rise of a conservative elite.” This elite has created a “Counter-Establishment” designed to counteract the “Liberal Establishment.” Ironically, the liberal establishment, according to Blumenthal, never existed as anything more than a figment of right-wing paranoia, but its opposite is real. The conservatives “imitated something they had imagined, but what they created was not imaginary.”
Not only is the conservative counter-establishment more real; it is also, so Blumenthal implies, more potent than the liberal establishment or, rather, than the institutions that the conservatives mistakenly believe constitute the liberal establishment. Writes Blumenthal of the conservatives: “Their version of Brookings—the American Enterprise Institute—would be bigger and better. The Olin Foundation would give millions, with greater effectiveness than Ford. The editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal would set the agenda with more prescience than the New York Times. And although the Washington Times, funded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, wasn’t a formidable adversary for the Washington Post, a new generation of advocacy journalists, planted in a host of newspapers, would begin to create an alternative presence.”
In truth, however, the Ford Foundation is much larger than Olin, and is also joined on the liberal side of the political spectrum by such other giants as the Rockefeller and MacArthur Foundations and the bulk of those with perceptible political leanings. Whoever may be more “prescient,” the New York Times is more influential than the Wall Street Journal, and its liberal stance is shared by the Washington Post, as well as by the three commercial television networks, public broadcasting, and public radio. It is true that conservatives have done well at building Washington think tanks (although the example chosen by Blumenthal, the American Enterprise Institute, has for months been tottering at the brink), but liberalism remains unmistakably regnant in the worlds of the academy and publishing. And as for “planting” a new generation of advocacy journalists, the conservatives are clearly playing “catch up,” Blumenthal himself being a noteworthy example of the Left’s harvest.
To be fair, Blumenthal presents this whole tortured comparison, which appears in the book’s opening pages, as a conservative aspiration, rather than an analysis of accomplished fact. But everything that follows—including dozens of knowing references to well-heeled conservative institutions and networks, never placed in the context of their liberal counterparts—suggests to the reader that the aspiration has been realized.
Although the book’s subject is clear enough, its structure is hard to describe. It is neither a chronicle of the rise of the new elite, nor an analysis, nor even a polemic. Blumenthal’s preface describes the work as a “critical interpretation.” But this barely gets the flavor of it, for what it is in fact is an outburst, a formless outpouring of venom, bounded by no ethics of discourse, nor by logic, consistency, or accuracy.
Thus: Blumenthal likens a remark of President Reagan’s to something once said by Walt Disney, and comments damningly: “Appropriately, Reagan was the television broadcaster at the 1955 opening of Disneyland.” He ascribes Norman Podhoretz’s opposition to George McGovern to an unflattering remark that McGovern, unaware that Podhoretz and Midge Decter were married, allegedly made to Podhoretz about her appearance. He reports that Edwin Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, read two conservative classics in his freshman year in college, after which “his mind was set in a pattern that would never waver.” William Kristol, one of the younger generation of neoconservative writers and a teacher at Harvard, secured a position at the Department of Education, says Blumenthal, in exchange for the support his father, Irving Kristol, had given to the appointment of William Bennett as Secretary of Education. The neoconservatives as a group embraced President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative as “a way to compensate” for their failure to “broker the Jewish vote for Reagan” in 1984. Further, “a desire for vengeance” against the culture of the 1960’s “led some neoconservatives to feel a measure of vindication when John Lennon was killed” (though Blumenthal offers neither names nor specifics). William F. Buckley, Jr. was inspired to launch National Review by an obsessional anti-Semite. Arthur Laffer is fat.
And so it goes: 369 relentless pages of unrelieved sarcasm, ridicule, impugnment of motives, conspiracy theories, crackpot psychologizing, and invective.
Blumenthal attempts to give his work a patina of seriousness by declaring at the outset that “The central idea of this book is that ideas and ideology are now central to American politics.” And then in the conclusion he makes a couple of references to “the rise of an ideological politics” and “the paramount role of ideas.” But, astoundingly, in the 300-odd pages that come between—the entire body of the book—this “central idea” never comes up at all. It is not reiterated. It is not elaborated. It is not demonstrated. It is simply not there.
There is something deeply ironic about this choice of camouflage, for if any unifying theme can be found in Blumenthal’s potpourri of abuse, it is precisely the opposite of what he advertises as his “central idea.” The inescapable implication of the body of his book is that ideas do not count. First, they seem not to count to the people who espouse them. Everyone Blumenthal discusses is shown to have ulterior or unconscious motives for the positions he takes. Neoconservatives “are sufferers from multiple forms of alienation” who adopt a strongly pro-American stance because “by casting a warm glow around places they believed to be at the center of national life, which they were never part of, they gained a vicarious sense of belonging.” About the eminent economist, Milton Friedman, Blumenthal says that his views have “sources beyond the laws of economics. Friedman alone cannot explain Friedman. His thought is inextricably entwined with his own rags-to-riches tale.” And the same, mutatis mutandis, for Reagan and Thatcher and Podhoretz and Kristol and the rest. None of the conservatives or neoconservatives is credited with holding an idea because he believes it to be true.
Second, Blumenthal denies that ideas are important to the electorate which provided Reagan with the triumphs that form the context for Blumenthal’s critique. He attributes the President’s success instead to his ability to construct a “mythology” that has enveloped American voters and whose grip is immune to rational challenge. He writes: “Reagan’s ability to present conservatism as a mythological system insulated it from most criticism. . . . His policies might be contradictory and counterproductive, but his mythology remains appealing.” But if Reagan’s policies are as harmful as Blumenthal suggests, why hasn’t the allure of the myth worn thin? Blumenthal replies: “The effects of Reaganism, however squalid, need not lead to disillusionment. For those with definite convictions and firm commitments, the unequivocal refutation of belief is insufficient to provoke apostasy.”
But what about public-opinion polls showing not only that Reagan remains very popular, but also that voters agree with him on most issues and increasingly identify themselves as “conservative”? “Polls of the general public intended to demonstrate agreement or disagreement with conservative positions don’t get at this central point. Only a thin slice of political life can ever be revealed by the statistical matrix of conventional social science.” As for Reagan’s landslide reelection victory, Blumenthal avers: “The myths Reagan employed required no discussion of policies to be understood.” And he reminds us that Reagan made campaign appearances “with the Olympic medal winners, with Michael Jackson, and at the Grand Ole Opry with Roy Acuff, and (quack) talking with the man who was the voice of Donald Duck.” How easy it is to carry forty-nine states!
Beyond denying that ideas have been important in motivating either those who articulate conservative views or those who vote for them, Blumenthal himself shows little interest in or respect for ideas. He obviously disagrees fervently with his subjects, but he never argues with them, satisfying himself instead with sarcasm and ridicule.
Of all the things that suffer ridicule at Blumenthal’s hands, none is more consistently singled out than anti-Communism. He mockingly identifies one of the key groups making up his “counter-establishment” as “repentant ex-Communists, who had penetrated every concentric circle of the Inferno and seen its terrible heart.” The original prototype of these was Whittaker Chambers, described thus by Blumenthal: “The rumpled and heavyset Chambers was suicidal and conspiratorial. He passed himself off under numerous false identities, and led a furtive life as a homosexual. . . . Chambers’s baroque version of subterranean Washington during the days of high liberalism, a capital crawling with Soviet spies and complicit New Dealers, seemed vindicated” by Alger Hiss’s perjury conviction. Later he adds that “the ex-Communist’s national security state [was] required to exorcise the nightmarish Communist-liberal Hades,” and comments that “In the 20th century, the ‘international Communist conspiracy’; became the embodiment of evil for the right wing.” Ronald Reagan, he says, “came to believe that if Communists like those he encountered in Hollywood won, the world would fall apart.”
Accordingly, Blumenthal also ridicules the idea that some liberals see the United States and the Soviet Union as morally equivalent. He asserts that “moral equivalence” is “an idea [conservatives] claimed liberals backed,” but that, in truth, “‘moral equivalence’ was a formula contrived by Jeane Kirk-patrick. No liberals stepped forward to defend ‘moral equivalence.’”
Yet some liberals have indeed espoused concepts of moral equivalence. For example, Paul Warnke, to whom Blumenthal refers in the book, made his intellectual mark by arguing that the United States and the Soviet Union were like “two apes on a treadmill.” The Institute for Policy Studies, labeled “liberal” by Blumenthal in a remarkable feature portrait that filled a good part of three pages in the Washington Post Style section this past August, directly espouses the idea of moral equivalence, at least whenever the Institute is putting its more respectable foot forward. (Just as often, IPS fellows imply that the Soviet Union is morally superior to the United States.) And Blumenthal’s own work is littered with variations on the theme of moral equivalence. Among the neoconservatives, says Blumenthal, “some of the former Trotskyites who have gained influence under Reagan have assumed the tone of Stalinist commissars.” Irving Kristol’s political activities, he says, “resemble [those of] no figure so much as Willi Munzenberg,” a notorious Comintern agent. And in a classic statement of the “moral equivalence” creed, Blumenthal attacks Podhoretz because “He does not see America as one great power among other powers, attempting to achieve its ends through the traditional means of statecraft and motivated by the same impulses as other nation-states.”
The problem with Blumenthal’s method of argument is not only that it is unpleasant, not only that long before page 300 it becomes a deadly bore, not only that, if taken seriously, his thrusts are so easily parried—the larger problem is that sarcasm, ridicule, and the rest constitute an evasion of his announced subject, which is indeed an interesting one. For the first time in generations, liberalism’s ascendancy in the world of ideas is under challenge from its Right. Although at times Blumenthal implies that this is merely a consequence of assiduous organizing by conservatives and at times that it is nothing more than a natural historical cycle, he also gives evidence of knowing that something deeper is at work.
Liberalism has not recovered from the assault of the New Left in the 1960’s. Under its impact, liberalism divided, one part making its peace with its youthful assailants by accepting, albeit in watered-down form, many of their tenets, while the other part, moved to battle against the New Left, was impelled on a journey that came to be called neoconservatism.
Blumenthal might have brought an interesting perspective to these transformations, having been himself a part of the New Left. Yet he barely mentions the New Left and is silent about his own intellectual journey, although one assumes that the move from the Nation, the Progressive, and In These Times to the New York Times, the New Republic, and the Washington Post was accompanied by some inner movement as well.
Whatever Blumenthal’s own current opinions may be, his work bears some of the earmarks of his New Left origins. His style of no-holds-barred diatribe is reminiscent of the radical press’s disdain for bourgeois niceties. Also, he matter-of-factly refers to America more than once as a “national security state,” a term coined by IPS founder Marcus Raskin and typifying the New Left’s hyperbolic anti-Americanism. And his journalistic work exhibits an inconsistency of standards that bespeaks an ideological bias.
Since arriving at the Post, Blumenthal’s favorite target has been Prodemca, a group of anti-Communist liberals in the Henry Jackson-Hubert Humphrey mold that has advocated an activist U.S. policy in Central America aimed at encouraging democratization. The day before last spring’s House vote on aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, the Washington Post published a frontpage story by Blumenthal pointing out that Prodemca had run newspaper ads supporting the aid and had also served as a conduit for grants from the National Endowment for Democracy to the so-called “civic opposition” within Nicaragua. This raised the question, so Blumenthal hinted, of whether U.S. government funds had been misused to influence Congress. No other major news outlet picked up the story, waiting instead for the results of an emergency congressional investigation which concluded that Blumenthal’s innuendo was baseless. The Post has never explained why, except for eagerness to influence the House vote, it could not have chosen, as all the other major news organizations did, to see if there was any evidence of wrongdoing before rushing into print.
On occasion, other kinds of liberals, too, have felt Blumenthal’s sting. In the book he heaps contempt on Walter Mondale, as he did during the 1984 primaries, and in a much-noticed article in the New Republic last year he exhumed the connections between Geraldine Ferraro’s family and various criminal elements.
In short, Blumenthal has labored to establish a reputation as an investigative reporter of unexcelled fierceness. But when in his Post portrait of the Institute for Policy Studies he took up the subject of his former colleagues of the New Left, his temper changed dramatically, and he produced a whitewash.
That article seemed to be a belated response to the controversy that swirled around IPS in the early 1980’s. At that time, the publication of the best-selling novel, The Spike, which portrayed IPS as a Communist-front group, stimulated several magazine articles (including one by me) that documented IPS’s affinity for Third World Communist revolutionaries.
In his portrait of IPS, Blumenthal did not get around to the accusations against it until after 60 paragraphs. Then he dismissed them in a few sentences. He wrote: “The focus of much of [the] criticism falls on Saul Landau, who befriended Fidel Castro in 1960 and made a film about him. But much of the rosy glow has faded. ‘For me,’ [Landau] reflects, ‘Cuba is not a terribly attractive model. The stuff that seemed exciting to me twenty-five years ago—revolution—doesn’t seem exciting now.’” Yet only a few years ago Landau told me that Castro was not “a dictator” but “a leader with enormous popular support,” “one of the most brilliant politicians in the world today” who had imprisoned Huber Matos “for correct reasons” and was doing something “very important” for mankind by his intervention in Angola. Nor was Landau very different from other IPS leaders. IPS director Robert Borosage told me that both the United States and the Soviet Union were failed social systems, but that the Soviet Union had spawned “interesting social experiments” such as “Yugoslavia, Hungary, Poland, Cuba, Nicaragua.”
Blumenthal’s IPS feature inexcusably made no mention of the fact that he himself had served for some years as the Boston correspondent for IPS’s newspaper. His failure to discuss his own views in his book is easier to justify, but it plays badly against the supercilious tone he maintains toward the views of others, and adds to the book’s feeling of hollowness. It may be that he has yet to come to terms with his past ideas or to define his current ones, and this may have much to do with his failure to argue seriously with the ideas of the people he so glibly defames in this abysmal book.