Ballot Box Blues

The Most Dispiriting Election of a Lifetime (Mine)

By the time you read this, I'll already have voted -- the single most reflexivepolitical
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 U.S. 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."

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, millionairesactually 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

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

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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