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Ballot Box Blues | The Nation

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Ballot Box Blues

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This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.

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Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute of which he is a Fellow...

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By the time you read this, I’ll already have voted—the single most reflexive political act of my life—in the single most dispiriting election I can remember.  As I haven’t missed a midterm or presidential election since my first vote in 1968, that says something.  Or maybe by the time you’ve gotten to this, the results of the 2010 midterm elections will be in.  In either case, I’ll try to explain just why you don’t really need those results to know which way the wind is gusting.

First, though, a little electoral history of me.  Certainly, my version of election politics started long before I could vote.  I remember collecting campaign buttons in the 1950s and also—for the 1956 presidential campaign in which Dwight Eisenhower (and his vice president, Richard Nixon) faced off against Democratic Party candidate Adlai Stevenson—singing this ditty:

Whistle while you work, 
Nixon is a jerk, 
Eisenhower has no power, 
Stevenson will work!

Even in the world of kids, even then, politics could be gloves-off stuff.  Little good my singing did, though: Stevenson was trounced, thus beginning my political education.  My father and mother were dyed-in-the-wool Depression Democrats, and my mother was a political caricaturist for the then-liberal (now Murdoch-owned) tabloid, the New York Post.  I still remember the fierce drawings she penned for that paper’s front page of red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy.  She also came away from those years filled with political fears, reflected in her admonition to me throughout the 1960s: “It’s the whale that spouts that gets caught.”

Still, I was sold on the American system.  It was a sign of the times that I simply couldn’t wait to vote.  The first election rally I ever attended, in 1962, was for John F. Kennedy, already president.  I remember his face, a postage-stamp-sized blur of pink, glimpsed through a sea of heads and shoulders.  Even today, I can feel a remnant of the excitement and hope of that moment.  In those years before our government had become “the bureaucracy” in young minds, I was imbued with a powerful sense of civic duty that, I suspect, was commonplace.  I daydreamed relentlessly about becoming an American diplomat and so representing my country to the world.

The first presidential campaign I followed with a passion, though, was in 1964, after Kennedy’s assassination.  In memory, I feel as if I voted in it, though I couldn’t have since the voting age was then 21, and I was only 20.  Nonetheless, I all but put my X beside the “peace candidate” of that moment, Lyndon B. Johnson, who had, in such an untimely manner, inherited the Oval Office and a war in Vietnam.  What other vote was there, since he was running against a Republican extremist and warmonger, an Arizona senator named Barry Goldwater?

Not long after his inauguration, however, Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing of North Vietnam.  It had been planned before the election, but was kept suitably under wraps while Goldwater was being portrayed as a man intent on getting American boys killed in Asia and maybe nuking the planet as well.

Four years later, with half a million US troops in South Vietnam and the war reaching conflagration status, I was “mad as hell and not going to take this any more”—and that was years before Paddy Chayefsky penned those words for the film Network.  I was at least as mad as any present-day Tea Partier and one heck of a lot younger.

By 1968, I had been betrayed by my not-quite-vote for Johnson and learned my lesson—they were all warmongers—and so, deeply involved in antiwar activities, I rejected both Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had barely peeped about the war, and his opponent Richard Nixon (that “jerk” of my 1956 ditty) who was promising “peace with honor,” but as I understood quite well, preparing to blast any Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Laotian within reach.  I voted instead, with some pride, for Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.

(Okay, I didn’t say this was going to be pretty, did I?)

Nor was it exactly thrilling in 1972 when “tricky Dick,” running for reelection, swamped Senator George McGovern, who actually wanted to bring American troops home and end the war, just before the Watergate scandal fully broke.  And don’t forget the 1980 election in which Jimmy Carter was hung out to dry by the Iran hostage crisis.  As I remember it, I voted late and Democratic that Tuesday in November, came home, made a bowl of popcorn, and sat down in front of the TV just in time to watch Carter concede to Ronald Reagan.  Don’t think I didn’t find that dispiriting.

And none of this could, of course, compare to campaign 2000 with its “elected by the Supreme Court” tag or election night 2004, when early exit polls seemed to indicate that Senator John Kerry, himself an admittedly dispiriting figure, might be headed for the White House.  My wife and I threw a party that night which started in the highest of spirits, only to end, after a long, dismal night, in the reelection of George W. Bush.  On the morning of November 3rd, I swore I had “the election hangover of a lifetime,” as I contemplated the way American voters had re-upped for “the rashest presidency in our history (short perhaps of that of Jefferson Davis).”

“They have,” I added, “signed on to a disastrous crime of a war in Iraq, and a losing war at that which will only get worse; they have signed on to whatever dangerous schemes these schemers can come up with. They have signed on to their own impoverishment. This is the political version of the volunteer Army. Now, they have to live with it. Unfortunately, so do we.”

Hermetic Systems and Mad Elephants 

Six years later, we are indeed poorer in all the obvious ways, and some not so obvious ones as well.  How, then, could the 2010 midterms be the most dispiriting elections of my life, especially when Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News assured us, in the days leading up to the event, that it would have “the power to reshape our nation’s politics.”  Okay, you and I know that’s BS, part of the endless, breathless handicapping of the midterms that went on non-stop for weeks on the TV news?

Still, the most dispiriting?  After all, I’m the guy who penned a piece eight days after the 2008 election entitled “Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart.”  In what was, for most people I knew, a decidedly upbeat moment, I then wrote, for instance: “So, after January 20th, expect Obama to take possession of George Bush's disastrous Afghan War; and unless he is far more skilled than Alexander the Great, British Empire builders, and the Russians, his war, too, will continue to rage without ever becoming a raging success.”

And take my word for it, when I say dispiriting I’m not even referring to just how dismal my actual voting experience was today in New York City.  I mean, two senators and a governor I don’t give a whit about and not a breath of fresh air anywhere—not unless you count our Republican gubernatorial and “Tea Party” candidate, a beyond-mad-as-hell businessman, who made a fortune partially thanks to state government favors and breaks of every sort and then couldn’t wait to take out that government.  (And when Carl Paladino talks about taking something out, you instinctively know that he’s not a man of metaphor.)  Okay, that is dispiriting, just not in a lifetime award kind of way.

No, it’s the whole airless shebang we call an election that’s gotten to me, the bizarrely hermetic, self-financing, self-praising, self-promoting system we still manage to think of as “democratic.” That includes the media echo chamber that’s been ginning up this nationally nondescript season as an epochal life-changer via a powerfully mad—as in mad elephant—populace ready to run amok.

What Goes Up…

I’m no expert on elections, but sometimes all you need is a little common sense.  So let’s start with a simple principle: what goes up must come down.

For at least 30 years now, what’s gone up is income disparity in this country.  Paul Krugman called this period “the Great Divergence.”  After all, between 1980 and 2005, “more than 80% of total increase in Americans' income went to the top 1%” of Americans in terms of wealth, and today that 1% controls 24% of the nation’s income.  Or put another way, after three decades of ”trickle-down” economics, what’s gone up are the bank accounts of the rich.

In 2009, for instance, as Americans generally scrambled and suffered, lost jobs, watched pensions, IRAs, or savings shrink and houses go into foreclosure, millionaires actually increased.  According to the latest figures, the combined wealth of the 400 richest Americans (all billionaires) has risen by 8% this year, even as, in the second quarter of 2010, the net worth of American households plunged 2.8%.

And in this election year, dispiritingly enough, it’s clear what went up is indeed coming down.  It’s been true for years in our electoral campaigns, of course, but this year we’re talking genuine financial downpour.  Up at the top, individually and corporately, ever more money is on hand to “invest” in protecting what one already possesses or might still acquire.  Hence, this election has a price tag that “obliterates” all previous midterm records.  It’s estimated at $4 billion to $4.2 billion, mostly from what is politely called “fundraising” or from “outside interest groups”—in other words, from that 1% and some of the wealthiest corporations, mainly for ad and influence campaigns.  In other words, the already superrich and the giant corporations that sucked up so much dough over the last 30 years now have tons of it to “invest” in our system in order to reap yet more favors—to invest, that is, in Sharron Angle and Harry Reid.  If that isn’t dispiriting, what is?

The right-wing version of this story is that a thunderstorm of money is being invested in a newly aroused, mad-as-hell crew of Americans ready to storm to power in the name of small government, radically reduced federal deficits, and of course lower taxes.  This is a fantasy concoction, though, even if you hear it on the news 24/7.  First of all, those right-wing billionaire and corporate types are not for small government.  They regularly and happily back, and sometimes profit from, the ever-increasing power of the (national security) state to pry, peep, suppress, and oppress, abridge liberties and make war (endlessly) abroad.  They are Pentagon lovers.  They adore the locked-down “homeland.”

In addition, they are for the government giving them every sort of break, any sort of hand—just not for that government laying its hands on them.  They are, in this sense, America’s real welfare queens.  They want a powerful, protective state, but one that benefits them, not us.  All of those dollars that scaled the heights in these last decades are now helping to fund their program.  For what they need, they only have to throw repeated monkey wrenches into the works and the Tea Party, which really isn’t a party at all, is just the latest of those wrenches.

...Must Come Down...

Faced with all our national woes, are we really a mad-as-hell nation?  On that, the jury is out, despite the fact that you’ve heard how “angry” we are a trillion times in the “news.”  Maybe we’re a depressed-as-hell nation.  There’s no way to tell, even though the anger story glued eyeballs this election season.  What we do know, however, is that the rich-as-hell crew are making good use of the mad-as-hell ones.

Amy Gardner of the Washington Post recently offered us a revealing report on the Tea Party landscape.  Of the 1,400 Tea Party groups nationwide that the Post tried to contact, it reached 647.  Many of the rest may have ceased to exist or may never have existed at all. (“The findings suggest that the breadth of the tea party may be inflated.”)  What the Post researchers found bore little relationship to the angry, Obama-as-Hitler-sign-carrying older crew supposedly ready to storm the gates of power.  They discovered instead a generally quiescent movement in which “70% of the grass-roots groups said they have not participated in any political campaigning this year.”  Most of them were small, not directly involved in the midterm scramble or even electoral politics, and meant to offer places to talk and exchange ideas.  Not exactly the stuff of rebellion in the streets.

On the other hand, the funding machines like Tea Party Express (run by Sal Russo, longtime Republican operative, aide to Ronald Reagan, and fundraiser/media strategist for former New York governor George Pataki), FreedomWorks (run by Dick Armey, former Republican House majority leader), and Americans for Prosperity (started by oil billionaire David Koch) have appropriated the Tea Party name nationally and were pouring money into “Tea Party candidates.” And don’t forget the Tea-Partyish funding groups set up by Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s bosom buddy and close advisor.

That these influential “tea partiers” turn out to be familiar right-wing insiders—“longtime political players,” as the Post put it, who since the 1980s "have used their resources and know-how to help elect a number of candidates”—shouldn’t be much of a shock.  Nor can it be so surprising that familiar right-wing political operatives are intent on creating a kind of political mayhem under the Tea Party label.  Still, if that’s not dispiriting, what is?

...And Where It Landed

As for the TV set that’s been filling your living room with the sound and fury of an epochal election that may, in itself, signify relatively little, take a moment to consider the context for all the noise.  We know how the money went up and we’ve all been watching it coming down.  Isn’t it curious, though, how little attention all the commentators, pundits, and talking heads on that screen pay to where so much of that money is actually landing?  I mean, of course, in the hands of their bosses.  Vast amounts of it have come down on the media itself, particularly television.  I’m talking about all those screaming “attack ads,” including the ones sponsored by those unnamed outside interest groups, that are probably driving you completely nuts by now, and that the talking heads just love to analyze, show bits of, and discuss endlessly?

Those are the very ads enriching the media outfits that employ them in a moment when the news world is in financial turmoil.  It is estimated that, for election 2010, the TV ad bill may total $3 billion (up from $2.7 billion in the 2008 presidential campaign year, and $2.4 billion in the 2006 midterms that brought the Democrats back to power in Congress).

For the companies behind the screen, in other words, those ads are manna from heaven.  If, in another context, someone was selling you on the importance of a phenomenon and was at the same time directly benefiting from that phenomenon, it would be considered a self-evident conflict of interest.  In this particular case, all those ad dollars are visibly to the benefit of the very media promoting the world-shaking importance of this election season.  But remind me, when was the last time you saw anyone on television, or really just about anywhere, even suggest that this might represent a conflict of interest?

The media aren’t just reporting on the next election season, they’re also filling the space between your ears, and every other space they can imagine with boosterism for just the kinds of elections we now experience.  They are, in a sense, modern-day carnies, offering endless election spiels to usher you inside the tent.  However they themselves may individually think about it, they are working to boost the profitability of their companies just as surely as any of those right-wing funders are boosting their corporate (or personal) profits.  They are, that is, not outsiders looking in, but a basic part of the hermetic, noisy, profitable system we think of as an election campaign.

Oh, and as for the election itself, none of us really had to wait for the results of midterm 2010, the Anger Extravaganza, to know that it won’t be transformative, not even if the Republicans take both houses of Congress.  This isn’t rocket science.  You already know what the Democrats were capable of (or, more exactly, not capable of) with 60 theoretical votes in the Senate and a humongous advantage in the House of Representatives.  So you should have a perfectly realistic assessment of how much less of “the people’s business” is likely to be done in a more closely divided Congress, or even in one in which the Republicans hold a seat or two advantage in the Senate—and with Democrat Barack Obama as president.

After the election, whatever the results, you already know that Obama will move more toward “the center,” even if for decades it has been drifting ever rightward without ever settling on a home; that he will try to “work with” the Republicans; that this will prove the usual joke, and that the election, however breathlessly reported as a Republican triumph or Democratic save or Tea Party miracle (or anything else), will essentially be a gum-it-up-more event.

Though none of the voluble prognosticators and interpreters you’ll listen to or read are likely to say so, those right-wing fundraisers and outside interest groups pouring money into Tea Party candidates, angry maniacs, dopes, and whoever else is on the landscape undoubtedly could care less.  Yes, a Congress that gave them everything they wanted on a proverbial silver platter would be a wonder, but gum-it-up works pretty darn well, too.  For most Americans, a Washington in congressional gridlock in a moment of roiling national crisis may be nothing to write home about, but for those fundraisers and outside interest groups, it only guarantees more manna from heaven.

And the good news, as far as they are concerned, is that the state that matters, the national security, war-making one, hardly needs Congress at all, or rather knows that no Congress will ever vote “no” to moneys for such matters.  Meanwhile, the media will begin cranking up for the even more expensive Election 2012.  Long before this election season came to a close, my hometown paper was already sporting its first pieces with headlines like “Looking Ahead to the 2012 Race” and beginning to handicap the presidential run to come. (“Although [President Obama] will not say so, there is at least a plausible argument that he might be better off if [the Democrats] lose… [I]f Republicans capture Congress, Mr. Obama will finally have a foil heading toward his own re-election battle in 2012.”)  And don’t think for a second that the New York Times wasn't in good company.  On the weekend before November 2nd, the first Associated Press-Knowledge Network poll was already out asking Democrats if they wanted Obama challenged in the 2012 primaries.

Whether the country I once wanted to represent was ever there in the form I imagined is a question I’ll leave to the historians.  What I can say is that it’s sure not there now.  What remains, angry or depressed, has made for a toxic brew as well as the most dispiriting election of my life.  For what it's worth, consider that my ballot box blues on this dreary Tuesday in November 2010.

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