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A week before the election Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast with tremendous force. Millions were thrown back a century in time to an epoch of candles and cold showers, with no indoor plumbing. A world without the 24-hour distraction of the Internet. Coastal homes were blown apart or swamped with seawater. Half of New Jersey, parts of coastal boroughs and all of lower Manhattan were powerless for a week or more.
It occurred to me that the disaster would provide an opportunity for both candidates to ‘look presidential,’ always a critical component when the voting electorate pulled the lever or punched the chad based on their perception of a candidate’s trustworthiness. Subtle cues, like a strong jawline and a confident gaze into the middle distance were the telegraphic indicators the masses craved.
Barack Obama, the incumbent, was caught in the cross-hairs between a need to go on the offensive against his opponent, and to maintain his milquetoast persona so as not to frighten racist Caucasians. It was a delicate balancing act that he achieved finally by ridiculing his white opponent without appearing angry as he did so. Sarcasm and a smile seemed to do the trick.
Still, such was disdain for the general population that Mitt Romney seemed to think he could win by chanting the endless refrain of “twelve million jobs” without explaining how he would create them; and by promising to reduce the exploding federal deficit, without explaining where he’d find the money.
Many Americans, suspecting the perpetually tanned and Bryll creamed Romney was not particularly trustworthy, summed up their feelings by exclaiming, “This is some bullshit.” About a quarter of the voting population put their faith in half-black Obama, who had dutifully funneled twenty trillion dollars to banks without taxpayer bailouts and low-interest loans. Despite his efforts, Wall Street opted to support Romney, who promised to lower taxes on the ‘wealth creators’ while Obama made periodic allusions to asking the rich to pay a little more. Appeals to selfless altruism usually fall flat in America, an ostensibly Christian nation that seems to want to be saved by Christ but not asked to act like him.
The Voting Public
Voters tended to fall into four categories. First, there were the Republicans, a numerous lot of anti-government, anti-immigrant, anti-poor, anti-gay, and anti-abortion xenophobes allied to an even-tempered educated class with a desire to secure and extend its capital gains, entirely remove a tax burden they regarded as theft, and ignore or marginalize the poor.
According to this narrative, the indigent had themselves to blame for their circumstances. A lack of industry, dishonesty bordering on the mendacious, and a persistent belief in their own victimhood conspired to put these people at the bottom of the social ladder, and rightly so.
Liberals comprised the second group. This was an almost rabidly pro-Democrat clan of self-labeled progressives who appeared to cling to the handful of quasi-progressive measures the Obama administration had passed, spotlighting these to the exclusion of the far larger corporate repressive policies that Democrats had enacted.
This frequently resulted in surreal dialogues in which liberals would passionately proclaim minor measures such as young adults being covered on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26, while making no mention of the several proxy wars the President was carrying out abroad, or the dramatic erosion of civil liberties exceeding even the Bush administration, or any number of other regressive initiatives.
In practical terms, both parties had been fatally compromised by money power, funneled into party coffers by the gigantic machinery of lobbyists. Once in office, representatives felt obliged to serve the interests of corporate entities that had put them in office—interests antithetical to those of the general population.
Embittered leftists comprised the third group. Although of entirely oppositional ideologies, I’ve put them in the same group because they occupy similar position along the American political spectrum. Namely, an angry, disempowered fringe that vacillates between voting for third party candidates with zero chance of winning, or submitting to the implacable logic of the lesser of two evils.
Leftists had their quasi-socialist dreams shattered by the capitulation of the Democratic Party to corporate elites, an inevitable shift led by New Democrats under Bill Clinton (and Third Way Laborites in Britain under Tony Blair).
On the far right, tea part activists had become disillusioned by the rudderless policies, government expansion, and indiscriminate spending of George Bush II.
The lesser of two evils argument was the pivotal debate around the country in months prior to the election. Whether to temporarily elide the President’s anti-majority policies from consideration and focus exclusively on the small margin of positive difference between the President and his challenger, or vice versa.
For leftists, providing a $700 billion stimulus was surely better than the horrifying prospect of a President who might provide nothing in such a crisis and who might start a needless war with Iran, as his Republican predecessor had done with Iraq.
For hard right conservatives, Romney would repeal the massive government-supported Obamacare health initiative, which included an unprecedented mandate that forced all Americans of age to buy a private commodity. This struck at the heart of American individualism, and its repeal was surely better than the prospect of higher taxes and larger government interventions in their lives.
Those who refused the devil’s bargain of the lesser evil found themselves voting their conscience, as they felt voters should, but for candidates that at best might garner two percent of the vote, a negligible tally that would simply reinforce their irrelevance. Curiously enough, third party candidates, like Jill Stein of the Green Party, promised policies that almost directly reflected the views of the majority in poll after poll. But a vast abyss had opened between public opinion and the federal policies they received.
The fourth group included the mas disaffected. This group did not vote and was the largest of the four, and comprised over half the voting eligible. Whites and large minorities, such as African-Americans and Hispanics, featured prominently in this group. Many in the educated classes considered these people among the least educated and most susceptible to the propaganda of the greater of the two evils. Yet it was these minorities in collective majority that often seemed the most clear-sighted about the political system, unburdened by the ideological commitments of the elites, and most often the most affected by government policy—such as welfare reform in 1996.
True, they often fell prey to single-issue social arguments about topics such as abortion, gays, and stem cells that drove them excitedly into the arms of either corporate party. But how was this different from my well-educated PhD friend who insisted I must vote for Obama simply because Romney would appoint right wing lunatics to the Supreme Court who would instantly overturn Roe v. Wade and usher in a nightmare of back alley abortions and millions of discarded infants.
All who abstained from voting, whether out of sheer apathy or from a desire to register a protest, were uniformly despised. Among these non-participants, it was pointless to note that a single vote was mathematically meaningless, and that only voting blocks mattered. These logical objections were met with scorn and the claim that not voting was to abdicate one’s obligation as a democratic citizen. Indeed, it was a right for which much blood had been shed in its securing. But this impassioned denunciation fell on the deaf ears of half of American adults.
The Language of Illusion
The language of the presidential debates was revelatory, especially in the absence of the words ‘poor’ and ‘poverty’ in the mouth of either candidate. The general domestic trend had been of four decades of decline among the middle and blue collar classes. Minimum wage had long been delinked from inflation, and it predictably bought less each year. Half of Americans were officially low income, near poverty, or downright indigent. Tens of millions relied on food stamps for their meager nutritional needs.
However, in order for the candidates to sustain optimistic narratives much was eliminated from the domestic vision they outlined for a sometimes incredulous public. The operative word now was ‘middle class,’ a vanishing group but one cherished by most Americans as some sort of personal destination—a dream that included steady gainful employment, savings, a spacious house to fill with children, with whom you had plenty of time to nourish, take to tropical islands, and whose college fund was steadily accruing in home equity or simple savings. Stocks did not factor here—only ten percent of Americans owned any, partly explaining how Wall Street could flourish while Main Street floundered.
The shrinking middle class had replaced the metastasizing lower class as a byword of debate. ‘Inner cities’ had replaced ‘ghettos’ and ‘substandard housing’ had replaced ‘slums.’ But this was rhetoric—the opposite of reality.
As part of their service to elite capital—the one percent—it was important for candidates like Obama to sustain the brand narrative of the American Dream, painting a picture of a benign and prosperous middle class, expanding industry and a widening circle of rights and opportunity.
Likewise, the word ‘economy’ had replaced ‘industry’ since a majority of manufacturing jobs—almost all of them—had been exported abroad (accounting for most of China’s rapid growth) by companies that valued profits above loyalty to the workers that had built them. Most of the economic growth now was fictitious capital gain—derivatives that generated margins by placing uninsurable bets on meager and unstable assets. It was possible, at least in the short-term, to trumpet economic growth of this kind even amid the collapsing scenery of the industrial economy (now transformed into pricy lofts for the debt-fuelled hipster class).
But the promise of a better world was powerfully concentrated in the genteel figure of President Obama, who himself embodied a triumph over the racist exclusion of blacks from the establishment. Sixties activists had rightly seen in the Illinois senator an embodiment of their long overdue dreams, a vindication of Martin Luther King’s vision of racial harmony and equality. Just getting elected was a triumph in itself.
What went unmentioned among starry-eyed supporters was the President’s wholesale abdication of any professed progressive principles in order to be elected by “the unelected dictatorship of money.” To become America’s first black President, Obama had to signal his subservience to corporate power, pursuing its preferred policies at the expensive of majoritarian interests.
Obama sought to implement policies that sidelined climate change, amnestied corporate criminals, protected unregulated derivative trading, marginalized unions, devastated foreign workers, and undertook destabilizing wars or proxy wars abroad. He paid lip service to middle class interests and did put money toward stabilizing the economy, housing and unemployment. But compared to funds delivered almost on demand to corporate finance, these populist measures were mere tokens, woefully inadequate, unserious, and of more symbolic than practical value.
But, as calculated by the administration, these policies were enough to sustain the lesser evil argument against a rising chorus of voices claiming there was little substantial difference between the parties. Gore Vidal’s original assessment still held: Democrats and Republicans were the left and right wings of the Business Party. Labor’s interests were nowhere prioritized in the American political spectrum.
For an American majority of millions—and for the planet itself—the diagnosis was severe to fatal, yet the political prescription on offer included two aspirin and a series of lukewarm platitudes designed to mollify righteous rage. Elite power simply did not care what happened to the world so long as its short-term profits were assured. The people could wait. The planet could wait. Still, enough Americans to sustain the system had put their faith in leaders who had long since taken them for fools.
Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 15-year veteran of the corporate communications industry. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.