Banana Republicans: The Three-Banana Problem

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The Three-Banana Problem is the title of the conclusion of the 2004 book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing Is Turning America Into a One-Party State (ISBN 1585423424).


Partly due to the post-9/11 political climate and partly due to the conservative movement's own organizing strengths, the Republican right has succeeded in moving the United States in directions that would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago. In addition to embroiling the nation in costly overseas military adventures, the Bush administration has presided over massive budget deficits, increasing political polarization at home and an alarming growth of anti-American sentiment abroad. In the long run, these trends are not likely to be sustainable, and pressures to change course will mount.

Conservatives have been shrewd about simultaneously organizing a grassroots movement outside the Republican Party at the same time that they work to get people within the party elected to public office. A similar strategy has defined the conservative movement's approach to the media. They have created their own, unabashedly conservative media, while simultaneously working to advance the careers and visibility of conservative journalists within the mainstream. This dual strategy gives them the ability to constantly push forward ideas that are on the conservative margins, promoting radically conservative ideas while simultaneously appealing to the center.

Liberal activists could adopt this dual strategy, but they haven't. Instead, the Democratic Party's centrist faction has tried to exclude or marginalize factions that are seen as "too far to the left.". Moreover, the pattern of conservatives pushing from the right versus Democrats moving toward the center has had the effect over time of steadily redefining the "center" further and further to the right.

The reality behind the conservative movement's success is that - thanks in part to the lessons it borrowed from the left - it has simply done a better job of organizing from the grassroots up.

The failure of liberals in effectively organising - even on issues where there is wide community support such as for a universal publicly funded health care system - is not due to lack of money or other resources with which to build such an infrastructure; the problem is that progressive funders have devoted themselves primarily to supporting service programs or academic research, while failing to adequately support the public promotion of progressive ideas.

Another reason for the right's success has been its ability to take advantage of emerging innovations in information technology. During most of the 20th century, the dominant technologies were radio, television and print journalism. These technologies gave a communications and organizing advantage to the ideologically disciplined conservative movement as it allied itself with the wealth and power of large corporations. These technologies lend themselves to top-down control because, by their very nature, they are "one-to-many" technologies in which a relatively small number of people participate in shaping and producing messages that are then transmitted to millions of largely passive recipients.

The Internet can be used to disseminate 'one-to-many' messages, but what makes it especially interesting with regard to the future of democracy is that it also makes 'many-to-many' and 'many-to-one' communications technologies available and affordable. The political potential of this new information environment has yet to be fully realized, but there are a number of interesting developments that give cause for optimism - a fact that has certainly been noticed by corporate communicators.

The recent successes of the right have not eliminated America's long-standing traditions of political tolerance, diversity and respect for individual freedom - traditions that reflect generations of debate and political struggle. The United States has not always honored its democratic principles, but it has honored them well enough to serve often as an inspiration to others.

The world wants democracy, but - at least for the present - it no longer sees the United States as a democratic leader. This is the real challenge facing the United States. Will it live up to its own traditions and become once again a leader and inspiration to others? Or will the conservative movement's vision of "politics as war" undermine those traditions for a generation to come?

Now, as in the past, democratic renewal in the best American tradition will have to emerge from the initiatives of numerous individual citizens acting separately and yet inspired by common goals. Is it possible for such a democratic movement to emerge? Was it ever possible in the past? It didn't look easy then, either. The answer depends on you and millions of others like you. But in a democracy, maybe that's how it should be.

Discussion questions

  • Why do the Republicans dominate all the branches of the US government?
  • Is it possible that the pendulum could swing back to the Democrats and/or other liberal groups? How?
  • Why have conservative groups been so successful when centrist and liberal foundations have larger amounts of funding under their control?
  • How is the Internet changing the face of politics and the media?