Media and the American Ruling Class, Reflections on Vice TV’s Bernie Blackout
By Alan Minsky, Executive Director – Progressive Democrats of America
I watched the new documentary Bernie Blackout on Vice TV this week. It tracks the unrelenting bias against the Bernie Sanders campaign in the mainstream media from the beginning to the end of the 2020 presidential primary race. I recommend the film to anyone who wants to understand contemporary American society; and, thus, to everyone who hopes to see positive social and political change in our time.
America, we are told, is a democratic society. That the people are sovereign; and that their rule is expressed through the ballot box. Yet, a recent study showed what most of us have long understood to be true about the American political system – that it serves the wealthy and powerful few and not the vast majority. The Bernie Blackout reveals one of the mechanisms by which powerful interests are protected from interference by the people.
However, naked media bias, like that documented in the film, is not the favored means through which unwelcome political ideas are marginalized by the powerful. As American democracy has (d)evolved in recent decades, the first barrier is money. Both in 2016 and 2020, Sanders was able to do what wasn’t supposed to be possible. He raised the astronomical sums necessary to run a competitive national campaign without relying on the oligarchs and major corporations that fund all of the mainstream candidates (thus purchasing their fealty). Spectacularly, Bernie did this through a record-shattering number of small donations.
Let’s pause here and reflect; because not even the Bernie Blackout makes enough of this achievement. In an honest democracy, no candidate should have to raise the type of money that Bernie did. Campaigns should be publicly funded. However, powerful interests in America have devised a system to insure that candidates serve them, not the general public. This is, of course, a reprehensible corruption of democracy. Bernie wants to end this current system of bribery. In light of that fact, what the Sanders campaign achieved through small donations was truly an exemplary manifestation of democracy in action. Both Sanders campaigns were mass uprisings against oligarchy, intended to salvage American democracy and reinstate popular rule. The one thing most hated by a ruling class.
So, Bernie was able to overcome the first barrier (money) in his effort to bring balance to our economy and society. The film documents the next level of defense by the powers that be – derisive, unrelenting, substanceless attacks across the major broadcast and print media.
The word substanceless here is important. Because, if you think about the Sanders agenda, it’s pretty hard to debunk on its merits. Think about it through the lens of “political science.”
We humans are quirky. It’s hard to draw “scientific” conclusions about our behavior. However, modern industrial/technological societies have been around long enough now that we can draw some pretty clear inferences about them. For instance, when countries are ranked according to human welfare indices – like happiness, health, education, prosperity, low crime, absence of poverty, etc. – the countries of northern Europe always rank at the top (in particular, the Scandanavian countries, but you can throw in Germany and The Netherlands for a larger population sample). So, scientifically, we should ask what is it about these countries that produces these positive outcomes? Have they always been prosperous? Nope. Are they resource rich? Nope. Is it the climate? Not at all. It’s simple. It’s their social organization – which in all of these countries is social democratic or (in Bernie’s lingo) democratic socialist.
The entire Bernie Sanders political movement is based on the proposition, informed by looking out at the rest of the world, that we should re-organize American society to make it more like the countries in the world that produce the best lives for their citizens. You can check the videotape, Bernie has been saying this from the day that he launched his first presidential campaign.
So, there’s nothing sinister about Bernie’s agenda. Fair national media would have reflected this. In fact, honest brokers would’ve been fascinated. Is it possible to have a school system like Finland’s in America? How do Swedish businesses thrive when workers have so many vacation days? Why is wealth inequality so low in Holland? What’s the secret to German manufacturing? to Danish Green Energy? How, Bernie, can America arrive at these outcomes?
We never heard those questions asked in the mainstream media. No one ever asked Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar why they objected to American workers having it as good as Scandanavian workers. So, Kamala Harris, you’re saying that American kids are more stupid than Finnish kids? Why, Joe Biden, have German factories remained in Germany with high wages when so many American businesses moved production overseas?
Not going to happen in a million years. The mainstream media is bought and paid for by the American ruling class – and the last thing they want is a well-informed, politically-engaged American citizenry. That would signal the end of their rule; for it would end their ability to take the lion’s share of all the wealth. So, Bernie had to be mocked or made threatening – as documented in the Bernie Blackout.
So, where does that leave us? Was Bernie always destined to fail? Did his two campaigns, which effectively took “third place” in two successive presidential elections, get as close as is possible for a pro-people candidate in our unfair, imbalanced system?
It’s probably too soon to draw that conclusion – especially given the overwhelming support for Sanders and his transformative politics among younger Americans. Also, given how severe the COVID-19 crisis is proving to be, it’s impossible to know where we’ll be in three months, let alone in four years – and certainly the Sanders agenda is fresh in people’s minds as we go through this period of unprecedented turmoil.
However, whether it’s in the 2024 presidential election cycle, or in a few months due to the calamitous impact of the pandemic – we must understand the lesson of the Bernie Blackout; and, indeed, of the two Sanders runs for president. It’s simple. The powers-that-be will do everything possible to block progressive left politics from getting the upper hand in our political system. Next time, progressives have to be ever-more powerful themselves in order to triumph.
In particular, left-friendly alternative media needs to grow. The goal has to be nothing short of attaining an audience comparable to the mainstream. Fortunately, there’s good news on that front. New left and left-friendly digital media has started to come of age over the past couple of years (inspired, to a considerable degree, by Sanders 2016 campaign). Cenk Uygur’s TYT was an online TV trailblazer, and now it’s joined by The Hill’s Rising. Sam Seder, Kyle Kylinski, Katie Halper, Jimmy Dore, the Humanist Report, Benjamin Dixon, Michael Brooks, and Chapo Trap House all have substantial followings on podcast and video platforms, though the largest left-wing talk show audience belongs to trans superstar Natalie Wynn (Contrapoints). Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, a relative old timer, remains the signature news magazine of this new left media; with Jacobin and Current Affairs the new publications on the block. On balance, these outlets are as fun as they are serious; but don’t be fooled, all of them bring as much insight as they can muster to illuminate the issues facing a society in crisis.
Already the combined audience of these shows competes with MSNBC; and it certainly routs any of the cable news channels in the under 50 demographic. The task on this front is simple. The audience and the influence must expand. Organization and coordination of these projects must be a priority going forward. The left can no longer cede the media arms race.
What if these shows joined forces with a broadcast network like Pacifica? Imagine 100,000 watts of left-wing attitude blasting across Southern California’s airwaves – combined with a 24/7 video stream available on a variety of platforms – heralding the arrival, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, of democracy to the USA.