Bill Moyers
November 5, 2012
Tom Engelhardt on Supersized Politics in the 2012 Election

BILL MOYERS: When I was a kid I used to go to double feature horror movies on Saturday afternoon and then walk home in the dark down Austin Street. The trees that lined each side of that street rustled with strange sounds and the night seemed full of menace. I made sure to stay in the middle of the street so I could run in either direction depending upon where fear moved me. My imagination of course, but I was determined to play it safe.

There's something like that menace going on in America now, something that to me is dark and disturbing, but it's not imaginary. It's the menacing shadow of the almighty dollar, the military industrial establishment gets bigger and bigger even when there isn't a war to fight because it's just so profitable.

Higher education, once the fountain to slake the thirst for knowledge, the temple of truth for truth's sake has become yet another big money machine for hire, cranking out applied research and diplomas, enslaving young graduates to exorbitant student loans, all for a profit. As we've we seen more than ever this year our elections are the same, the nonstop fundraising and never ending campaigns generating billions in big profits for TV stations, pollsters, vendors, lobbyists, staff and consultants.

My guest has a name for it, super-sized politics, fueled by what he calls copious multimillion dollar contributions to the dark side. He lays it all out in this article, an essay from his website, It’s a project at the Nation Institute and he calls it a regular antidote to the mainstream media. Combining his own sharp analysis with that of some of the finest writers anywhere is one of the best websites around and deserves to be much better known. In the '70s Tom Engelhardt worked at the Pacific News Service, but for then three decades has built a sterling reputation as an editor in book publishing.

He's now consulting editor at Metropolitan Books and cofounder of its American Empire Project. His own books include The End of Victory Culture and this latest written with Nick Turse, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare. He's here to talk with me about super-sized politics, their impact on this election and the nation. Tom Engelhardt, welcome.

TOM ENGELHARDT: Glad to be here.

BILL MOYERS: What are you seeing here on the eve of this election?

TOM ENGELHARDT: The striking thing about this election season it seems to me is simply a kind of elephantitis, a giganticism, this gigantic thing we still call an election filled with billions of dollars of political consultants and billions of dollars of ads and, I mean, the numbers are staggering. And above everything else trillions of words, of hyperbole, it never, it just gets bigger. And you know that in 2016 it'll be bigger yet. I just think it’s all crazy. This can’t be an election, this can’t be what anybody meant by democracy.

BILL MOYERS: Has democracy been downsized?

TOM ENGELHARDT: We were downsized.


TOM ENGELHARDT: We, I think the American people have been downsized. You know, I mean, certainly, you know, I mean, ask the people who, whose houses are underwater, you know, ask the kids whose, who are basically now getting, I mean, what I call subprime educations when they come out with, you know, thousand, tens and tens of thousands of dollars, they go to college and they come out with tens and tens of thousands of dollars of debt that they may never work their way out from under.

Look at the collapse of the wealth of African American and Hispanics after the 2007 global economic meltdown. I mean, look at any of this and you can see, I mean, everything in this society has tended to go upwards.

And it's gone upwards into, you know, a small class of very wealthy people or it's gone upwards into an ever growing national security state, it's gone upwards into big election, it's gone upwards into media outfits. But what's gone downward is obviously pay and, you know, and what you would call downsizing, I mean, the literal downsizing, I mean, the downsizing of people losing jobs. I mean, there's been a lot of downsizing in our world. It's not that everything's been super sized, it's just that a lot of things that probably, we could probably do without having super sized have grown very, very big.

BILL MOYERS: What's happened to the small-d democracy that you and I grew up with? I don't sense that now.

TOM ENGELHARDT: No, I think, I mean, the will of the people, which was of course the idea of democracy, has been superseded by something like the entertainment of the people I would say. I mean, this particular election, which is really if you look at it seriously a lackluster affair, I mean, the most vulnerable president competing against a man who might not beat him. But it's being hyped on, in the media to an extreme, I mean, everything has logos: the showdown, the final test, these are just the debates, I mean, the comeback, the whatever. And you really get a sense of the kind of a developing, massive all season reality show. Who's going to be voted off the island--

BILL MOYERS: And yet the debates have been the most watched in many seasons.

TOM ENGELHARDT: Yes, yes. The money going into TV outfits is staggering. I mean, first of all you have to say these are not the greatest days for TV outfits. I mean, the primetime ratings are way down, they were down in the spring, it looks like they're down again in the fall. But you now have something like a yearlong running show filled with ups and downs, it's got endless storylines, people yanked on and offstage. And along with that show which glues eyeballs, we know that from 60 to 67 million people watched the debates and, you know, in the Republican debates, which started again earlier in the spring and went on longer, they too glued more eyeballs than in 2008. You have along with that you have about three billion dollars, estimate, maybe more, going into TV advertising. So this is really great if you own a TV outfit. And what I find strange is--

BILL MOYERS: In a swing state.

TOM ENGELHARDT: In a swing state, yeah, yeah, or if you happen to own Fox News, I mean, for instance. I mean, it doesn't have to be a small TV outfit. It can be, the big places are getting the money, too. And there is here, if it were another industry it would be written about this way and yet nobody mentions it. It's one of the great conflicts of interest in our world which is--


TOM ENGELHARDT: Well, you've got the owners of the media outfits pulling in piles of money and you've got their employees out there more or less in front of the tent, you know, saying, "This is the biggest thing, this is the moment, you know, the tattooed lady is inside, you've got to come in and see her."

It's like an old carnie act almost. I mean, they don't certainly think of it that way, but functionally they are shilling for the importance of this moment which is a moneymaking, which is a profit center for their bosses. And, I mean, that this isn't a conflict of interest I find strange. Nobody discusses it.

BILL MOYERS: If you had been the moderator, what two or three key questions would you have asked?

TOM ENGELHARDT: Well, I would have started by asking about climate change because nothing's going to tell you more about what the world's going to be like than what happens with climate change, whether we can somehow stop putting greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. So I think that's where you'd have to start. What indeed are you, Mr. President, going to do from 1988 on it was never not mentioned. It's a pocketbook issue globally and locally. In addition polls show, that, or at least the polls I've seen show that undecided voters are increasingly aware of climate change. There has been one reference to climate change, none by a mediator, a moderator at a debate, not a mention of it. There's Romney's mocking reference to the president promising to protect us from the rising oceans which was when he, at his nomination speech.

MITT ROMNEY: President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.

TOM ENGELHARDT: That was how he ended his nomination speech with a laugh. I mean, people are going to look back on this moment with horror.

BILL MOYERS: When McCain and Obama debated in their race in 2008 they spent a good bit of time on climate change. And Obama said, I think this is almost a verbatim quote, "We can't drill our way out of this."

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Senator McCain talks a lot about drilling, and that's important, but we have three percent of the world's oil reserves and we use 25 percent of the world's oil. So what that means is that we can't simply drill our way out of the problem. And we're not going to be able to deal with the climate crisis if our only solution is to use more fossil fuels that create global warming.

BILL MOYERS: You don't get him talking that way now. He is actually supporting more drilling.

TOM ENGELHARDT: Now he says we can drill our way out.

BILL MOYERS: He says we can--

TOM ENGELHARDT: That's his position. I mean, this is like they're all scared to death to talk about climate change. I mean, part of it clearly again big money is so important. Part of it's the power of, I mean, we're about to get the quarterly profit figures for the big oil companies, they're going be staggering. We know the kind of money that goes into their lobbies. I mean, I noticed the other day for instance -- The New York Times had a piece on the key Obama advisor for the debates…

BILL MOYERS: Anita Dunn--


BILL MOYERS: --who is a confidant of President Obama and a senior campaign advisor. She's helped prepare him for the debates, she's plotted campaign strategy, acted as a surrogate of sorts in attacking Mitt Romney on issues like women's rights and health care. Next paragraph, she and her colleagues at this communication firm have built a growing list of blue chip companies, food manufacturers, a military contractor, the New York Stock Exchange, the Canadian company developing the XL pipeline--

TOM ENGELHARDT: That's what struck me, that she, I mean, the person preparing him for debates represents the company that wants to put the XL, the Keystone pipeline, the Tar Sands pipeline through the United States. That too is an obvious conflict of interest. And that's not atypical. Romney is a walking, talking directory of lobbyists, you know, and including energy lobbyists, yes.

BILL MOYERS: What else would you have asked? Next question.

TOM ENGELHARDT: I would have asked about the drones. To me the high point of the debate was when Bob Schieffer finally got to the question of drones, looked at the president and said, "You know, really we don't need to ask you about drones. We know what you're doing with drones. But Governor, what do you think about drones?" The governor said, "Drones, yes, great."

BOB SCHIEFFER: What is your position on drones?

MITT ROMNEY: Well I believe we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world. And it’s widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that and entirely, and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology, and believe that we should continue to use it, to continue to go after the people that represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.

TOM ENGLEHARDT: And then we passed on from drones. And that was the debate. I would have said, "What do you really think, is it really right that the president of the United States should have a kill list, should be actually picking individuals halfway across the planet to die regularly, weekly? And do you really think, that war, every modern sort of war should in fact be a purely presidential decision?"

TOM ENGELHARDT:I mean, the U.S. has used assassination before. But presidents haven't proudly become functionally assassins in chief. I mean, we know that that piece in about the, the first piece about the kill list in The New York Times was clearly leaked by the administration in some fashion. So it was a kind of a bragging point. The president cocked the gun on this drone program.

And if it turns out to be Mitt Romney we know he agrees, we know that he'll pull the trigger just the same as the president.

BILL MOYERS: The weight of public opinion seems to support the drone policy--

TOM ENGELHARDT: It does support the policy.

BILL MOYERS:--support the president, in part because the president and others say this keeps Americans out of harm's way and in part because they claim it works and because they are determined that the United States not be surprised again by an attack like 9/11. You wrote this book, The United States of Fear, some years ago. Is it because we're so fearful of terrorism that we see this as an expedient policy that will deal with terrorism?

TOM ENGELHARDT: The drones in particular I think they represent an odd phenomenon. They, I would call them, it would be the phenomenon of the wonder weapon. If you look at the polls no place else in the world does anybody like drones except in the United States where the percentages even of liberal Democrats who like them are high.

But drones have been treated here as like armed iPhones, the sexiest things around, you know, and wonder weapons that will solve the problem. Now, there's a history of wonder weapons starting with, you know, the dreadnought, the tank, poison gas, the atomic bomb. The thing about wonder weapons is they never end up being as wondrous as anybody imagines.

But by the time they don't solve the problem that they are supposed to solve forever they've embedded themselves in our world and then they're just chugging along. And that's of course the truth with drones. The danger of drones is: we've paved the way with drones, we've set up the pathways, we've said it's perfectly okay to cross any border to go after people you don't like and take them out as judge, jury and executioner.

You know, 40, 50 other countries are now getting drones. What if they do the same thing? We won't be so happy. I mean, I think it's, and I think it's pretty clear that these drone programs while they are killing people, they are more accurate than the old carpet bombing, you know, they're, they still kill civilians, they still anger people.

You're not even in a plane, you're 7,000 miles from some plane without a pilot, they might be anyone. And sometimes they are anyone and those people and their relatives and their tribe and their friends, they end up unhappy.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve been writing about the American imperial paradox. Everywhere there are now quote, "Threats against our wellbeing we seem to demand action and yet nowhere are the commensurate enemies to go with them. Everywhere the U.S. military still reigns supreme by almost any measure you might care to apply and yet in case the paradox has escaped you nowhere can it achieve its goals however modest."

TOM ENGELHARDT: This is one of the weirdnesses of our world. I mean, if you look at our world, I mean, you have to go back I think to the Soviet moment. I mean, you had had centuries of great powers, sometimes multiple great powers competing on the earth, they ended up after World War II as two powers so great that they were called superpowers, they were beyond great powers.

And they competed for, you know, 40-odd years, 50 years, not quite 50 years and then one of them simply disappeared from the face of the earth. And it disappeared basically because it was to begin with the less wealthy, the weaker of the two powers. It had a heck of a nuclear force, but it was, it was the weaker of the two powers.

Its infrastructure began to grow sclerotic, the economy began to hollow out, deficits piled up, the, its rulers poured money into their military. And if this doesn't start to sound eerie it should, it got stuck in a place called Afghanistan fighting a war it couldn't win. Now, it went down, it disappeared. And at that moment when you looked at the world there was only one great power, we called ourselves the sole superpower and we were proud of it.

And when you looked around there was nothing else. There were a couple of rickety regional powers, Iran, North Korea, not much else. And at that moment the U.S. leaders in a mood of victory made a very strange decision. They decided to pour their money into the military basically to let the infrastructure hollow out, deficits go up, et cetera, et cetera.

You look around the world, we are pouring money into the military project. I mean, you know, people talk about stimulus projects at home and they're minimal, we have huge stimulus projects abroad. The building we've done in Baghdad, Kabul, it's kind of amazing in a way. And yet our enemies in the world, I mean, a few thousand wannabe jihadis, small numbers of Al Qaeda members, a few minority insurgencies that have nonetheless fought us to a draw in Iraq and Afghanistan, I mean, it's very strange. This should be the imperial moment of all time on planet earth, but something stops it from being so, there's something out--

BILL MOYERS: You've described it recently. The U.S. has 1,000 or more bases around the world, other countries a handful. The U.S. spends as much on its military as the next 14 powers, most of them allies of ours, combined. In fact, it's investing an estimated 1.4 trillion dollars, 1.4 trillion dollars to produce and operate a single future aircraft, the F-35. What's the psychology driving it, Tom?

TOM ENGELHARDT: Well, a little like this election there's a kind of a super sizing of a variety of things in this country. I mean, there is, there has been an incredible supersizing of the national security state.

And in that context and using the fear of 9/11, you know, many things that we once considered American liberties, American freedoms have just been downsized. You know, certain things have been supersized and certain things have been downsized. And I think there's now a world, a really profitable well paid world that's gigantic, just the world of the intelligence bureaucracy.

I mean, we say it's an $80 billion a year intelligence bureaucracy, it's probably significantly higher when you add everything in. You know, with so many employees, so much space, I mean, so many new buildings that have gone up. It's so much bigger than in the Cold War. And I just, I think in a way you get giant organizations like this and they come to feel that they must be. I mean, they don't even understand it themselves, but they simply must be. And there's no turning back.

BILL MOYERS: Where are we, the people? Why are we not talking about this generally? Why are we accepting the inevitable, as you described it, the bloating, super sizing not only of our national security apparatus, capacity for war but our politics?

TOM ENGELHARDT: One factor is that we are now thoroughly and utterly detached from our wars, and that's a factor. I mean, in the Vietnam period, you know, the draft made a big difference.

And it made a big difference because it reached into, it reached into every life here. It made you feel that the Vietnam War was happening in relation to you if you were young or if you were the parent of somebody young or if you were in those days the girlfriend of somebody, a young guy. Today our wars are being fought by, less than 1% of the country, they, they're they come back and are largely, they're praised and then ignored. Americans go about their business as if we were not at war.

We have been continuously at war since 9/11 if not before and Americans no longer are, you know, you don't have to do anything in your life, you don't have to worry about it. It's not, it doesn't seem to be part of your life. I mean, of course wars do come home, but it's not obvious for most people if you aren't connected to somebody close in the military, it's not obvious. And the drone is the, is a wonderful symbol of that because it's a plane without a pilot. I mean, there is a pilot thousands of miles away and there's another pilot closer who lands and takes it off. But basically it's a symbol of detachment.

So you get the all volunteer army more and more separated from the rest of society. You get a kind of warrior corporation culture that goes out with that army. You know, you get Blackwater, called Xe, called Academi, and they keep changing their name, you get various large corporations that go out and do building stuff for the army, you get KBR, formerly of Halliburton.

You've got all these warrior corporations that go out with them. So you have kind of a mobilized all volunteer army which is kind of, given its relation to the U.S. population, kind of like a foreign military. It's like a foreign, like the French Foreign Legion or something almost. You've got a mobilized corporate sector that goes out with it, you know. But the American people are left behind. I mean, George Bush famously said after 9/ll the thing we should do to prove our American-ness was to go to--

BILL MOYERS: Go shopping.

TOM ENGELHARDT: Go shopping.

BILL MOYERS: So what’s happened to small-d democracy? What does it mean to turn politics into a profit center?

TOM ENGELHARDT: How can it be “small d” democracy when you have a president in the year before he actually goes on the campaign trail is already spending, I think one out of every five days he has a fundraiser, and you don’t fundraise with me, you know? You fundraise with people with a lot of money, you fundraise with Wall Street, you fundraise with whatever, I mean, you fundraise with rich people, I mean money has, I mean, maybe in the gilded age, it hasn’t been since the gilded age that money’s played a role like this.

If you think about the period we’ve been through, it’s a period of for 30 years of growing inequality where basically money’s gone up, it’s risen in the society.

And it comes down in these election campaigns where the very rich corporations begin to craft messages, their election messages, for the American people. I mean, I’m not sure there’s ever been anything like this in our politics.

Certainly you had corrupt politicians, but the level of money, corruption and spectacle, you know, really has that Roman quality of bread and circuses. You know, ABC News this season has, I don't know what you call it, maybe, a logo that they use repeatedly and it's, "Your voice, your vote--"

NARRATOR: It’s a real battle. A nationwide tug of war, and your voice, your vote determines who wins.

TOM ENGELHARDT: --which always I see it and it always amuses me because. How can it be your voice, your vote and an estimated maybe $3 billion going into political consultants? I mean, that's someone else's voice and I don't even know if it's your vote even though, even if you're voting.

BILL MOYERS: What keeps you going against all the evidence?

TOM ENGELHARDT: Well, I'll tell, you know, in real life or in what once was real life I was a book editor. And late in his life I edited one of the greats of our world, I know you think so, and that's Studs Terkel. And one of the last books he wrote, he wrote it after his book on death was a book on hope. I loved that, I loved that he, that hope followed death in his pantheon. And in editing that book, you know, one of the things I noticed, it turned out that when he wrote his book on hope it was all about activists.

And the basic point he made was, you know, if you, in good times you could just be hopeful. You don't have to be an activist, you don't have to be an anything. You can be hopefully about your life. In bad times if you want to be hopeful you have to take a step. You've got to take some step to do something in the world. And in that sense TomDispatch is my medicine against despair. So what makes me hopeful is doing TomDispatch.

BILL MOYERS: Tom Engelhardt, thank you very much for being here.


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