Most academics probably paid little attention at the end of January when Glenn Beck explained to his listeners that the protests in Egypt would lead to the establishment of a Muslim caliphate that would engulf Europe while China would extend its domination to New Zealand and, curiously, the Netherlands would fall to Russia. But there is a sense in which we should have.
Glenn Beck claims about two million daily viewers on his TV show, and that in addition to a three-hour radio program, best-selling books, and an Internet "news" site known as The Blaze. True, for more than a year his ratings have been falling from their peak of three million daily viewers. But millions continue to turn to this Fox News personality for an interpretation of their world, and the interpretation they get is lunacy.
Propaganda and its place in American politics is not my academic specialty. But I have been prodded to think about it a lot in recent months because I have been made into a central character in Beck's stories about the evils that have befallen America.
According to Beck, I—together with my husband, Richard Cloward, with whom I frequently collaborated before his death—am the proponent of a theory of "orchestrated crisis" that lies behind an array of threats to American society, including the emergence of Students for a Democratic Society, Acorn, George Soros and the Open Society Institute, the New York City fiscal crisis, the election of Barack Obama, and the recent financial meltdown.
The plan for all that is said to have been laid out in an article we published in The Nation magazine in 1966 and, according to right-wing blogs and those who post on them, the influence of our plan is evident everywhere in American politics and public policy, but especially in the Obama administration.
Online posters eagerly identify the connecting threads that depict me as puppet master: I taught at Columbia University when Obama was a student there, and I probably taught him. I spoke at a conference in the 1980s that he probably attended. I was on Obama's transition team. Obama's policies, and especially health-care reform, are obviously a plan to implement my crisis strategy.
None of that is true, of course. So what was this strategy that excites such paranoid imaginings? The article we wrote in 1966 was based on research we had done on the low receipt of welfare benefits by the eligible poor. The research was inspired by our evaluation of the storefront services provided by an early antipoverty program on the Lower East Side of New York City known as Mobilization for Youth.
Our evaluation had shown that most of the troubles for which local residents sought aid had to do with poverty. They could not pay the rent and feared eviction, or they did not have cash to buy shoes for their children when school opened. Through Mobilization for Youth, social workers helped them apply for welfare benefits. So, we wondered, why were so many people in the neighborhood who were eligible for welfare not receiving it? Perhaps there was a widespread problem.
To find out, we scoured the findings of neighborhood surveys in New York and other cities, many of them done in connection with urban-renewal proposals. We concluded that there was a huge reservoir of desperately eligible poor people who were not receiving assistance, largely as a result of the machinations of the welfare bureaucracy.
The Nation article, entitled "The Weight of the Poor: a Strategy to End Poverty," called for large-scale campaign by social workers, lawyers, community organizers, and the poor themselves to claim benefits. Such a campaign, we thought, would not only relieve some of the acute poverty in the slums of America; it would also generate rising welfare costs for cities and states at a time of intensifying racial conflict.
The latter could prod a national Democratic administration that depended on urban constituencies to reform the archaic grant-in-aid welfare system, which still retained features of the old poor law, to introduce some kind of federal guaranteed-income policy. And in fact, by the end of the decade, even Richard Nixon, under the tutelage of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, became, a cautious advocate of a national guaranteed income.
The article had traction. It was published at a time when civil-rights and economic-rights protests were rising in Northern cities, and it helped inspire a movement of welfare recipients, social workers and lawyers known as the National Welfare Rights Organization. The group was led by a former associate director of CORE, then a major civil-rights organization, and it attracted staff and volunteers who wanted to join in the newly coined effort at "community organization."
I suspect that the heated political environment would have sparked a movement among the minority poor with or without the article, and with or without whatever help we provided, but that is clearly not what observers on the right have thought, or at least it is not what they have said.
Which brings me to the old ploy of attributing popular disturbances to "outside agitators." Beck often says that the inspiration for his theories comes from the research he does in the wee hours of the night. Indeed, in a voice suggesting intimate connection, he urges his listeners to do their own research.
In this case, his research was easy, and in fact had already been done by a number of intellectuals of a sort who made the crossing from left to right in the early 70s. Prominent among them was David Horowitz. He had been an editor of the left-wing Ramparts magazine, but became a vociferous propagandist for the right and is now known for naming the 100 "radical" academics he considers most "dangerous."
In a 2006 book written with Richard Poe, The Shadow Party: How George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Sixties Radicals Seized Control of the Democratic Party, Horowitz said that the strategy outlined in our article (the so-called Cloward-Piven Strategy of Orchestrated Crisis) was a blueprint to "collapse" the capitalist system. Others who had made the left-to-right crossing echoed the argument, so it was available for the Beck programmers with no research at all.
Indeed, they do not seem to read very much. Until early January, when I wrote a short article in The Nation on the need for protests by the unemployed if they are to gain voice and influence in American politics, they paid no attention at all to anything I had written since my 1966 article.
Lunatic though they are, the ravings about our plan for an orchestrated crisis to destroy capitalism—or a Muslim caliphate that will devour Europe—are important because they provide theories of a sort to people who are made anxious by large-scale changes that have overtaken American society. Those include deindustrialization and our loss of pre-eminence in the world, changes in family and sexual norms, and, perhaps most of all, the growing diversity of the American population and the election of an African-American president. Social scientists themselves do not agree about the causes of all these developments, and people without the luxury of time and training are often left angry and confused.
The contemporary political economy thus poses grave challenges to democratic possibilities, not only, as is often said, because a sharply skewed distribution of income and wealth empowers business and the rich, but also because the sheer complexity of our economic and political system makes democratic choice and deliberation difficult if not impossible. Democratic possibilities depend crucially on the ability of the public to understand what is happening to our society and why, and especially on the ability of the public to decipher the role of government policies.
But who can decipher the impact of a policy to regulate financial institutions when the policy and regulations run to the length of an encyclopedia, and the text of the encyclopedia deals with such incomprehensible matters as credit default swaps? The blank space in the democratic process is an invitation to propaganda by those who want to limit the democratic influence of the public, and propaganda is flourishing in American politics today.
The challenge to educators, and especially to university educators, seems to me clear. We have both an opportunity and responsibility to try to deal with public-policy issues and fill in the blank space that endangers democracy.
Frances Fox Piven is a professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a past president of the American Sociological Association.