Economic Realities Are Killing Our Era of Fantasy Politics
July 18, 2008
I am a single mother with a 9-year-old boy. To stay warm at night my son and I would pull off all the pillows from the couch and pile them on the kitchen floor. I'd hang a blanket from the kitchen doorway and we'd sleep right there on the floor. By February we ran out of wood and I burned my mother's dining room furniture. I have no oil for hot water. We boil our water on the stove and pour it in the tub. I'd like to order one of your flags and hang it upside down at the capital building... we are certainly a country in distress. -- Letter from a single mother in a Vermont city, to Senator Bernie SandersThe Republican and Democratic conventions are just around the corner, which means that we're at a critical time in our nation's history. For this is the moment when the country's political and media consensus finally settles on the line of bullshit it will be selling to the public as the "national debate" come fall.
If you pay close attention you can actually see the trial balloons whooshing overhead. There have been numerous articles of late of the Whither the Debate? genus in the country's major dailes and news mags, pieces like Patrick Healy's "Target: Barack Obama. Strategy: What Day is it?" in the New York Times. They ostensibly wonder aloud about what respective "plans of attack" Barack Obama and John McCain will choose to pursue against one another in the fall.
In these pieces we already see the candidates trying on, like shoes, the various storylines we might soon have hammered into our heads like wartime slogans. Most hilarious from my viewpoint is the increasingly real possibility that the Republicans will eventually decide that their best shot against Obama is to pull out the old "He's a flip-flopper" strategy -- which would be pathetic, given that this was the same tired tactic they used against John Kerry four years ago, were it not for the damning fact that it might actually work again. (I'm actually not sure sometimes what is more repulsive: the bosh they trot out as campaign "issues," or the enthusiasm with which the public buys it.)
Naturally we'll also see the "Patriotism Gap" storyline whipped out and reused over and over again. There will also be much talk emanating from the McCain camp about "experience," although this line of attack will not be nearly as fruitful for him as it was for Hillary Clinton, mainly because the word "experience" in McCain's case also has a habit of reminding voters that the Arizona senator is, well, wicked old.
The Obama camp, playing with a big halftime lead as the clichÃ© goes, is going to play this one close to the vest, sticking to a strategy of using larger and larger fonts every week for their "CHANGE" placards, and getting the candidates' various aides and spokesgoons to use the term "McCain-Bush policies" as many times as possible on political talk shows. Obama will also use this pre-convention period to do what every general election candidate does after a tough primary-season fight, i.e. ditch all the positions he took en route to securing the nomination and replace them with opinions subtly (or sometimes not-so-subtly) reconfigured to fit the latest polling information coming out of certain key swing states. Both sides as well as the pundit class will describe this early positioning for combat over swing-state electoral votes as a "race for the center" (AP, July 3: "Candidates Courting the Center"), as if the "political center" in America were a place where huge chunks of the population tirelessly obsessed over semi-relevant media-driven wedge issues like stem-cell research and gay marriage, even as they lacked money to buy food and make rent every month.
The press, meanwhile, is clearly flailing around for a sensational hook to use in selling the election, as the once-brightly-burning star of blue-red hatred seems unfortunately to have dimmed a little -- just in time, perhaps, to torpedo the general election season cable ratings. They are working hard to come up with the WWF-style shorthand labels they always use to sell electoral contests: if 2000 was the "wooden" and ?condescending? Al Gore versus the "dummy" Bush, and 2004 featured that same ?regular guy? Bush against the "patrician" and "bookish" John Kerry (who also "looked French"), in 2008 we?re going to be sold the "maverick" McCain against the "smooth" Obama, or some dumb thing along those lines. Time has even experimented with a "poker versus craps" storyline, feeding off the incidental fact that Obama is a regular poker player while McCain reportedly favors craps, which apparently has some electorally relevant meaning -- and if you know what that something is, please let me know.
We're also going to be fed truckloads of onerous horseshit about the candidate wives. The Michelle Obama content is going to go something like this: the Fox/Limbaugh crowd will first plaster her with Buckwheatesque caricatures (the National Review cover was hilariously over-the-top in that respect) and racially loaded epithets like "baby Mama" (that via Fox News spokeswhore Michelle Malkin, God bless her) and "angry black woman" (via self-aggrandizing, cop-mustached Chicago-based prune Cal Thomas). Next, the so-called "mainstream" press, the "respectable" press, which of course is above such behavior, will amplify those attacks 10 million-fold via endless waves of secondary features soberly pondering the question of whether or not Michelle Obama is a "political liability" -- because of stuff like the Thomas column, and Malkin's quip and the endless rumors about a mysterious "whitey" video. Cindy McCain, meanwhile, will generally be described as a political asset, as the pundit class tends to applaud, mute, stoned-looking candidate wives who have soldiered on bravely while being martyred by rumors of their mostly absent husband's infidelities. It will help on the martyrdom front that McCain launched his political career with her family money and drove her into an actual, confirmable chemical dependency. As long as she keeps gamely wobbling onstage and trying to smile into the camera, she's going to get straight As from the political press, guaranteed.
Some combination of all of these things is going to comprise the so-called "national debate" this fall. Now, we live in an age where our media deceptions are so far-reaching and comprehensive that they almost smother reality, at times seeming actually to replace reality -- but even in the context of the inane TV-driven fantasyland we've grown used to inhabiting, this year's crude cobbling together of a phony "national conversation" by our political press is an outrageous, monstrously offensive deception. For if, as now seems likely, this fall's election is ultimately turned into a Swan-esque reality show where America is asked to decide if it can tolerate Michelle Obama's face longer than John McCain's diapers, it will be at the expense of an urgent dialogue about a serious nationwide emergency that any sane country would have started having some time ago. And unless you run a TV network or live in Washington, you probably already know what that emergency is.
A few weeks back, I got a call from someone in the office of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders wanted to tell me about an effort his office had recently made to solicit information about his constituents? economic problems. He sent out a notice on his e-mail list asking Vermont residents to "tell me what was going on in their lives economically." He expected a few dozen letters at best -- but got, instead, more than 700 in the first week alone. Some, like the excerpt posted above, sounded like typical tales of life for struggling single-parent families below the poverty line. More unnerving, however, were the stories Sanders received from people who held one or two or even three jobs, from families in which both spouses held at least one regular job -- in other words, from people one would normally describe as middle-class. For example, this letter came from the owner of his own commercial cleaning service:
My 90-year-old father in Connecticut has recently become ill and asked me to visit him. I want to drop everything I am doing and go visit him, however, I am finding it hard to save enough money to add to the extra gas I'll need to get there. I make more than I did a year ago and I don't have enough to pay my property taxes this quarter for the first time in many years. They are due tomorrow.
This single mother buys clothes from thrift stores and unsuccessfully tried to sell her house to pay for her son's schooling:
I don't go to church many Sundays, because the gasoline is too expensive to drive there. Every thought of an activity is dependent on the cost.
Sanders got letters from working people who have been reduced to eating "cereal and toast" for dinner, from a 71-year-old man who has been forced to go back to work to pay for heating oil and property taxes, from a worker in an oncology department of a hospital who reports that clinically ill patients are foregoing cancer treatments because the cost of gas makes it too expensive to reach the hospital. The recurring theme is that employment, even dual employment, is no longer any kind of barrier against poverty. Not economic discomfort, mind you, but actual poverty. Meaning, having less than you need to eat and live in heated shelter -- forgetting entirely about health care and dentistry, which has long ceased to be considered an automatic component of American middle-class life. The key factors in almost all of the Sanders letters are exploding gas and heating oil costs, reduced salaries and benefits, and sharply increased property taxes (a phenomenon I hear about all across the country at campaign trail stops, something that seems to me to be directly tied to the Bush tax cuts and the consequent reduced federal aid to states). And it all adds up to one thing.
"The middle class is disappearing," says Sanders. "In real ways we're becoming more like a third-world country."
Here's the thing: nobody needs me or Bernie Sanders to tell them that it sucks out there and that times are tougher economically in this country than perhaps they've been for quite a long time. We've all seen the stats -- median income has declined by almost $2,500 over the past seven years, we have a zero personal savings rate in America for the first time since the Great Depression, and 5 million people have slipped below the poverty level since the beginning of the decade. And stats aside, most everyone out there knows what the deal is. If you're reading this and you had to drive to work today or pay a credit card bill in the last few weeks you know better than I do for sure how fucked up things have gotten. I hear talk from people out on the campaign trail about mortgages and bankruptcies and bill collectors that are enough to make your ass clench with 100 percent pure panic.
None of this is a secret. Here, however, is something that is a secret: that this is a class issue that is being intentionally downplayed by a political/media consensus bent on selling the public a version of reality where class resentments, or class distinctions even, do not exist. Our "national debate" is always a thing where we do not talk about things like haves and have-nots, rich and poor, employers versus employees. But we increasingly live in a society where all the political action is happening on one side of the line separating all those groups, to the detriment of the people on the other side.
We have a government that is spending two and a half billion dollars a day in Iraq, essentially subsidizing new swimming pools for the contracting class in northern Virginia, at a time when heating oil and personal transportation are about to join health insurance on the list of middle-class luxuries. Home heating and car ownership are slipping away from the middle class thanks to exploding energy prices -- the hidden cost of the national borrowing policy we call dependency on foreign oil, "foreign" representing those nations, Arab and Chinese, that lend us the money to pay for our wars.
And while we've all heard stories about how much waste and inefficiency there is in our military spending, this is always portrayed as either "corruption" or simple inefficiency, and not what it really is -- a profound expression of our national priorities, a means of taking money from ordinary, struggling people and redistributing it not downward but upward, to connected insiders, who turn your tax money into pure profit.
You want an example? Sanders has a great one for you. The Senator claims that he has been trying for years to increase funding for the Federally Qualified Health Care (FQHC) program, which finances community health centers across the country that give primary health care access to about 16 million Americans a year. He's seeking an additional $798 million for the program this year, which would bring the total appropriation to $2.9 billion, or about what we spend every two days in Iraq.
"But for five billion a year," Sanders insists, "we could provide basic primary health care for every American. That?s how much it would cost, five billion."
As it is, though, Sanders has struggled to get any additional funding. He managed to get $250 million added to the program in last year's Labor, Health and Human Services bill, but Bush vetoed the legislation, "and we ended up getting a lot less."
Okay, now, hold that thought. While we're unable to find $5 billion for this simple program, and Sanders had to fight and claw to get even $250 million that was eventually slashed, here's something else that's going on. According to a recent report by the GAO, the Department of Defense has already "marked for disposal" hundreds of millions of dollars worth of spare parts -- and not old spare parts, but new ones that are still on order! In fact, the GAO report claims that over half of the spare parts currently on order for the Air Force -- some $235 million worth, or about the same amount Sanders unsuccessfully tried to get for the community health care program last year -- are already marked for disposal! Our government is buying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Defense Department crap just to throw it away!
"They're planning on throwing this stuff away and it hasn?t even come in yet," says Sanders.
According to the report, we're spending over $30 million a year, and employing over 1,400 people, just to warehouse all the defense equipment we don't need. For instance -- we already have thousands of unneeded aircraft blades, but 7,460 on the way, at a cost of $2 million, which will join those already earmarked for the waste pile.
This is why you need to pay careful attention when you hear about John McCain claiming that he's going to "look at entitlement program" waste as a means of solving the budget crisis, or when you tune into the debate about the "death tax." We are in the midst of a political movement to concentrate private wealth into fewer and fewer hands while at the same time placing more and more of the burden for public expenditures on working people. If that sounds like half-baked Marxian analysis... well, shit, what can I say? That's what's happening. Repealing the estate tax (the proposal to phase it out by the year 2010 would save the Walton family alone $30 billion) and targeting "entitlement" programs for cuts while continually funneling an ever-expanding treasure trove of military appropriations down the befouled anus of pointless war profiteering, government waste and North Virginia McMansions -- this is all part of a conversation we should be having about who gets what share of the national pie. But we're not going to have that conversation, because we're going to spend this fall mesmerized by the typical media-generated distractions, yammering about whether or not Michelle Obama's voice is too annoying, about flag lapel pins, about Jeremiah Wright and other such idiotic bullshit.
Bernie Sanders is one of the few politicians out there smart enough and secure enough to understand that the future of American politics is necessarily going to involve some pretty frank and contentious confrontations. The phony blue-red divide, which has been buoyed for years by some largely incidental geographical disagreements over religion and other social issues, is going to give way eventually to a real debate grounded in a brutal economic reality increasingly common to all states, red and blue.
Our economic reality is as brutal as it is for a simple reason: whether we like it or not, we are in the midst of revolutionary economic changes. In the kind of breathtakingly ironic development that only real life can imagine, the collapse of the Soviet Union has allowed global capitalism to get into the political unfreedom business, turning China and the various impoverished dictatorships and semi-dictatorships of the third world into the sweatshop of the earth. This development has cut the balls out of American civil society by forcing the export abroad of our manufacturing economy, leaving us with a service/managerial economy that simply cannot support the vast, healthy middle class our government used to work very hard to both foster and protect. The Democratic party that was once the impetus behind much of these changes, that argued so eloquently in the New Deal era that our society would be richer and more powerful overall if the spoils were split up enough to create a strong base of middle class consumers -- that party panicked in the years since Nixon and elected to pay for its continued relevance with corporate money. As a result the entire debate between the two major political parties in our country has devolved into an argument over just how quickly to dismantle the few remaining benefits of American middle-class existence -- immediately, if you ask the Republicans, and only slightly less than immediately, if you ask the Democrats.
The Republicans wanted to take Social Security, the signature policy underpinning of the middle class, and put it into private accounts -- which is a fancy way of saying that they wanted to take a huge bundle of American taxpayer cash and invest it in the very companies, the IBMs and Boeings and GMs and so on, that are exporting our jobs abroad. They want the American middle class to finance its very own impoverishment! The Democrats say no, let's keep Social Security more or less as is, and let that impoverishment happen organically.
Now we have a new set of dire problems in the areas of home ownership and exploding energy prices. In both of these matters the basic dynamic is transnational companies raiding the cash savings of the middle class. Because those same companies finance the campaigns of our politicians, we won't hear much talk about getting private industry to help foot the bill to pay for these crises, or forcing the energy companies to cut into their obscene profits for the public good. We will, however, hear talk about taxpayer-subsidized bailouts and various irrelevancies like McCain's gas tax holiday (an amusing solution -- eliminate taxes collected by government in order to pay for taxes collected by energy companies). Ultimately, however, you can bet that when the middle class finally falls all the way down, and this recession becomes something even worse, necessity will force our civil government -- if anything remains of it by then -- to press for the only real solution.
"Corporate America is going to have to reinvest in our society," says Sanders. "It's that simple."
These fantasy elections we've been having -- overblown sports contests with great production values, decided by haircuts and sound bytes and high-tech mudslinging campaigns -- those were sort of fun while they lasted, and were certainly useful in providing jerk-off pundit-dickheads like me with high-paying jobs. But we just can't afford them anymore. We have officially spent and mismanaged our way out of la-la land and back to the ugly place where politics really lives -- a depressingly serious and desperate argument about how to keep large numbers of us from starving and freezing to death. Or losing our homes, or having our cars repossessed. For a long time America has been too embarrassed to talk about class; we all liked to imagine ourselves in the wealthy column, or at least potentially so, flush enough to afford this pissing away of our political power on meaningless game-show debates once every four years. The reality is much different, and this might be the year we're all forced to admit it.