-by Glynn Wilson
February 13, 2012- BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The fate of the world is often decided by powerful men meeting in secret. That is a fact, but it’s not always the case — and doesn’t have to be so.
No, this is no “conspiracy theory.” It’s just a narrative story explaining how politics, government and public opinion are often guided by the rich and powerful, but also how common citizens can make a difference when the press does its job of educating the public in a democratic society.
How the public thinks about politics and government is often guided by the metaphors and symbols embedded in our national narrative. It’s just that the rich have much more power to influence this narrative and set these symbols than the rest of us.
The press in this country also has a tremendous power to influence this debate, in spite of a lot of communications research which is designed to protect media corporations from legal liability by showing the limits of media influence on public opinion.
One of the greatest challenges we now face is that the media in this country was long ago taken over by the richest and most powerful corporate influences in this society. It is going to take a heroic effort on the part of a new Web Press to challenge that power and create an alternative narrative.
How this process works has been a fascination of mine since I first studied journalism and Political Science at the University of Alabama in the early 1980s, and in grad school at Alabama and Tennessee in the mid-to-late-’90s. But it is only in the past few years since I went independent as a journalist publishing on the Web that my thinking has evolved enough to put down in words a prescription for a solution to our dilemma. This essay is part of a continuing series of stories in how to “make democracy work.”
The Smoke-Filled Room
One of the most powerful images in American political history became part of the lexicon in 1920, when the Associated Press referred to a secret meeting in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, where Warren G. Hardin was chosen as the Republican nominee for president, as “a smoke-filled room.”
Since that time, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago History, a “smoke-filled room” meant a behind the scenes place where cigar-smoking party bosses held secret discussions to decide policy and choose political candidates.
But over the past three decades, since smoking went out of fashion, there is a new but similar type of meeting place where politics, public policy and the fate of the world is often decided. I have referred to it before as the “smoke-free rooms of the modern think tank.”
I had a chance to get a glimpse at such a place just the other day in downtown Birmingham, when I found out the local chapter of the Federalist Society was meeting at The Summit Club, an opulent private bar and restaurant on the 31st Floor of the Harbert Building, one of the tallest skyscrapers in this city and state. The view to the west directly overlooks both AT&T buildings and both Alabama Power buildings.
The group invited a luncheon speaker named Hans von Spakovsky, a fellow with a conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Founded in 1973, the think tank bills itself as dedicated to the formulation and promotion of “conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense.”
Sounds good, eh? But as I will point out in this essay, there is a problem with this philosophy.
For his part, Spakovsky graduated from the Vanderbilt University School of Law in 1984, the year Ronald Reagan was reelected to a second term as president. Spakovsky received a bachelor’s degree in 1981 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a native of Huntsville but currently resides in Vienna, Virgina, near the final stop on the Orange line of the D.C. Metro commuter train system near both the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, home to much of the nation’s capital’s intelligence community.
Since taking up the cause of the political right, Spakovsky has made quite a name for himself in circles where disenfranchising groups of voters who tend to vote for Democrats is involved. In fact, he has become one of the leading advocates for “voter suppression,” a term he does not use of course, but one that is now used by the press to describe how Republicans try to limit votes for Democrats as a purposful election strategy.