What’s wrong with the voting public? Or is it me? For four plus years, I watched Bush on TV and conjured up the image of a spoiled rich kid, a fool who thoughtlessly led the country into a bloody mess in Iraq, screwed up the economy and devastated the environment. Instead of pursuing the terrorists, he made war on Iraq, which had no links to the 9/11 fiends. Bush lost opportunities to pursue the terrorists. But millions of soccer moms and pious working people obviously saw in him a candidate who would protect them from terror. I wouldn’t have bought a used car from this guy, much less a baseball team
But instead of seeing Bush as a dry drunk who mouthed empty platitudes, almost 60 million Americans saw him as either the lesser of two evils or the guy who would teach their children proper Christian values. Such a thought almost impelled me to try to make my fortune selling the Brooklyn Bridge in the South and Midwest.
One quiet conversation, however, disturbed me more than all the rhetorical ranting during the recent election campaign. An intelligent, sensitive and caring woman said her gut feeling made her trust Bush more than Kerry; a coded message that the abortion issue would determine her vote. Indeed, the gut and not the head seem to have determined the bare majority of the vote — not a new phenomenon. The tendency of millions of Americans to vote against their own economic interests didn’t begin in 2004.
For almost a century and a half, politicians have used distracting issues to manipulate voters. After the Civil War, mountebanks used race and immigration to turn white workers against blacks and Asians. The industrialists and bankers gloated; the union movement was weakened.
In the 21st Century, as we are surrounded by technology and science, tens of millions still cling to the divisive “issues” that politicians repeat like stale songs to divide working people from their common interests. Race has faded into remote euphemisms and subliminal forms of expression, but immigration remains a hot topic, along with abortion, guns, prayer in schools and gay marriages. Worse, preachers and charlatans have converted these subjects into matters of faith or passion. Indeed, it has become difficult to discuss matters that defy rational discourse.
For tens of millions, the gut has replaced the head as the body part that directs voting. Has the public entered the once fictional world of George Orwell’s 1984?
The absence of political coherence frightens me. Five years ago I debated an extreme right winger who insisted that the government should ban abortion and stop subsidizing the poor for food, medical care, shelter and transportation. “The unborn are innocent,” he bleated.
“Yes,”” I replied, “and your philosophy claims that as soon as they’re born they get what’s coming to them. The government should only intervene to make sure the fetus is born, but not help the tiny baby get nutrition, medical care or any other necessity — and you’d execute them at age eight if they get really naughty.”
The debate deteriorated at that point as he kept insisting that I and my ilk were murderers because fetuses were actual human beings. I retorted with the old line that this came down to a cultural issue and in the culture in which I grew up a fetus didn’t become a genuine human being until it graduated from medical school.
One does easily not convince a “pro-lifer” on the abortion issue; rather, one tries to get an agreement to keep it out of the legislative agenda. Women got abortions before it became legal and many died as a result.
Similarly, the very notion of gay marriage threatened one woman at my university. “It’s beyond disgusting,” she said. “The whole institution of marriage has been put into jeopardy because of this `liberal tolerance’ toward outright sin.”
Did gay marriage cause Rush Limbaugh’s third marriage fall apart earlier this year? Do half the Californians who marry divorce within a decade because they live in daily fear that gays will marry? Yet, a sizeable part of the electorate considered this issue as a major factor in their decision on November 2.
In political science classes, I learned that people tend to vote for their economic interests. The rich traditionally want lower taxes and fewer problems with their servants. Bush fit that bill. Just as Reagan did in 1980 and 1984, when millions of poor, working class and middle class citizens left the Democratic Party and voted for Ronald Reagan, a regular guy who promised to lower everyone’s taxes, meaning he would lower his best friends’ taxes–the richest–and reduce government services for the rest of the people. He also promised to privatize some public property, like schools, transportation and health care institutions, and even foreign policy. He handed Middle East and Cuba policy to reactionary private groups as if they possessed more competence to leverage US weight in those areas. (AIPAC-the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Cuban American National Foundation
Reagan’s cavalier delegation of parts of traditional presidential prerogatives to special interest groups has proven less than healthy for the nation and the areas affected. His economic policies–Reaganomics — raised the cost of living, more than canceling out any tax breaks he offered. Reagan also hated abortion, loved guns and wanted more prayer, even in schools. Nevertheless, this less than brilliant grade B actor, became the greatest political educator of the late 20th Century. Along with his pal, Margaret Thatcher in England, he taught people to hate their government and therefore not pay taxes to support it.
I admit that under Clinton, I occasionally felt nostalgia for the Reagan years when sleeping with the president meant attending a Cabinet meeting. And I admired Reagan’s wit: “Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”
But except for his amusing one and two liners, Reagan slept his way through the presidency. He actually increased the federal budget significantly, albeit he did slightly slow its rate of growth. Reagan also increased the federal work force by more than 60,000. But his supporters seemed not to care about these details. Clinton, ironically, cut 370,000 jobs from the federal payroll.
Reagan was also a an who learned from political mistakes. When his ideologues convinced him in 1981-2 to try to cut social security, his Party lost 26 House seats in the 1982 midterm elections, largely as a result of this attempt to overachieve.
So, the Great Somnambulist simply reversed himself and bailed out the Social Security system with a $165 billion payment. So what that it meant a hike in payroll taxes and finally taxed the Social Security benefits only of upper-income recipients.
Clearly, the majority of voters found in Reagan their “regular guy,” a man who didn’t know much about most subjects and told jokes of dubious taste:”My fellow Americans. I’m pleased to announce that I’ve signed legislation outlawing the Soviet Union. We begin bombing in five minutes.” He told this gag during a microphone at a radio broadcast.
Like Bush (43), Reagan possessed an appeal that defied my sensibilities. If so many people found Reagan–and now Bush–attractive as a political leader, despite their destructive policies, how do progressive people begin to rethink political education? Almost 60 million Americans opted for Bush although he had led the country into an unjustified war, screwed up the economy, destroyed as much of Nature as he could and maintained loyalty to a Vice President whose former company seemed to be outrageously stealing from the Pentagon. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to find ways to talk to most–not all — of those people.
SAUL LANDAU is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. His new book is The Business of America.