The people have spoken. But what did they say? I wish that President Obama, besieged by conservatives warning him to heed the voice of the people, could summon the impudence to say what I might say, in his place, about the midterm elections of 2010. Maybe this is the way he'd answer his tormentors, if he dared: "When you can explain to me why Americans who have so little join forces against me with those who have way too much, then I might begin to understand what the electorate is saying."
He would never hear an honest reply. The dishonest one, a mantra on the right, is that all those Americans, rich and poor, share an unshakable belief in the free-market economy—which in the case of blue-collar tea-baggers is the same as an unshakable belief that they will win the lottery. The great Republican resurrection of 2010 makes no sense whatsoever where traditional logic prevails. A cartoon by Dan Wasserman of The Boston Globe shows the shell-shocked donkey and the jubilant elephant sitting at a bar. The donkey says "They voted you back into office out of anger over the mess you created?" and the leering pachyderm replies, "You don't believe in recycling?"
The midterms make exactly that much sense unless you concede that they mark the most successful manipulation of the gullible by the cynical that this deceitful republic has yet witnessed. Billionaires and "undisclosed" corporate donors poured kings' ransoms into relentless attack ads against vulnerable Democrats. Right-wing broadcasters circulated myths and lies that would have made Joseph Goebbels blush, and every racist and xenophobic impulse threatening to a nonwhite president was exploited without apology. The secret money served it up, and the logic-impaired tea party irregulars swallowed the poisoned bait with relish. The net result of the vaunted populist rebellion of 2010 was a sharp turn toward corporate feudalism, as the House of Representatives and many state legislatures and governor's mansions reverted to a rudderless but ruthless Republican Party that has never been less deserving of another chance.
Actually it could have been much worse. The Senate failed to fall to the barbarians, many targeted incumbents survived, some of the goofiest tea party candidates, like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, were rejected. Nazi re-enactor Rich Iott and Ilario Pantano, the ex-Marine officer tried for murdering Iraqi civilians, will not be taking their uniforms to Washington, D.C. America will survive this election. It will not, in the long run, survive what the voting revealed about our political system.
We've finally achieved institutional incoherence. In the regions especially prone to "conservative" excess, people voted to be governed by those who reject government; they elected legislators who support no legislation and created incumbents who despise all incumbents. Irony never crossed their minds. But when they exhumed the decomposing Republicans, who had all but committed political suicide at the end of the second Bush administration, they confirmed that the mainspring of the democratic process is broken. Voters may have had many reasons to be upset, but they had no positive way to express it. As the two-party system founders, political choice in America is never multiple choice. It's yes or no, true or false, chocolate or vanilla, even if you hate them both—don't even dream of strawberry or maple walnut. It may be true that the voters have no memory, but they have no options, either. They can only kick the revolving door and watch yesterday's gross failures pose as tomorrow's brightest hope.
If the presidential election of 2008 was a source of hope and pride for America and our long-suffering supporters overseas, these midterms are a source of queasiness and acute anxiety. The hard right's demonization of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, almost comical for its rhetorical overkill, wasn't significantly more savage than the assault on Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1994, the last midterm that resulted in disaster for congressional Democrats. The Clintons—pre-Monica Lewinsky—were accused of multiple felonies up to and including murder, as you may recall. This generation of Republican thugs flatly refuses to accept any Democrat in the White House. But President Obama's race stirs up even darker stuff from the American subconscious. The tea party adamantly denied a racist agenda, even as many of its independent operatives committed flagrant racial trespasses. It reminded me of a friend in New York, of mixed race like the president, who told me years ago that one of our office colleagues gave him the creeps. I asked him if the man in question had insulted him. "No, no, he's always polite," my friend replied. "But if I was to bite him—hard—I know he'd call me a nigger."
This recession is biting a lot of Americans—hard—and a lot of masks have come off. For those of us who have chronicled and applauded gradual progress in the post-Wallace South, it's depressing to see an article in The New York Times headlined "White Democrats Face Extinction in the South." According to the Times, antipathy toward Obama has pretty much completed the racial polarization and Republican conquest of the Deep South states, which will send only one white Democrat to serve in the next Congress. (The mid-South exception is North Carolina, where seven of eight Democratic representatives were re-elected—five of them white. Yet Democrats lost both houses of the legislature.) This racial backsliding is a source of shame, and so is the knowledge that my own demographic group—old white men who live in the so-called flyover states of the South, Appalachia, Midwest and West—are the heart and soul of the tea party insurrection and the Republican restoration. The midterms indicate that an overwhelming majority of the good ol' boys, if that's who they are, will now vote for anything but a Democrat.
"That is no country for old men," the poet wrote of another country, and soon there will be no country anywhere for old men like these. There are mornings when I'm particularly cranky, when the arthritis packs a special bite, that I can almost forgive the stubborn, self-destructive stupidity of surly codgers, facing decrepitude and irrelevance like the rest of us, who just can't come to grips with the future shock of Facebook, gay marriage and a president named Barack instead of Jim or Ed. Almost. But a greater disappointment, and a bigger surprise, is the flight to the right of so many ambitious women. To me, a Republican woman has always seemed as improbable as a black white supremacist. How strange, now, to have to deal with a virtual Limbaugh Ladies Auxiliary—in frightening cases like Michele Bachmann, more like the Brides of Beckenstein. I wrote a piece on the tea party, noting that we never hear the word "communist" in this country unless someone threatens the white man's traditional death grip on the economy. Rereading it after publication, I realized that half the far right candidates I was disparaging were female. If one of these women becomes the first female president of the United States, it's a giant step forward and 20 big steps backward.
What are we seeing here? Can you accept liberation and prosper from it, and then reject liberals? Have these women noticed the similarity between the two words? Can they stand nonchalantly on the shoulders of several generations of fighting feminists without acknowledging their debt? They must know that however far they've come, the fundamentalist reactionaries who've absorbed the GOP did nothing to help get them get there. Whether it was the Equal Rights Amendment, professional equality, education or reproductive rights, these are Republicans who opposed the rise of women every step of the way.
My late father, hardly a feminist by modern standards, used to say that we'd benefit from women in office because they were by nature less venal and predatory, less warlike and callous and more sympathetic to underdogs. I always believed that, but after a couple of years watching Sarah Palin and her clones boasting about their ability to shoot arrows into the hearts of large herbivores—watching Sharron Angle in her pickup waving a .44 Magnum—I'm beginning to question the old man's wisdom. With a chance to prove that they're better than men, why do these women choose instead to be men—and not the best men, either?
What a priceless irony to see tea party women parading in 18th-century costumes, celebrating a time when white women in America were only marginally more empowered than African slaves. Republican women are a phenomenon that continues to throw me. Come to think of it, my father never actually said women were smarter—though in our family my mother was the first to smell the rat that was Vietnam. But nearly two-thirds of all white men have just cast their votes for a Republican party 10 miles to the right of the one my father supported. Dirk or distaff, as the Scots used to say, there was nothing much in this election cycle to inspire confidence in the American electorate or the candidates it produces and elects. And far less to inspire confidence in the media that egged them on, and not coincidentally milked them and their "undisclosed" cash cows for several billion dollars in venomous, repetitive, content-free attack ads.
The one way the media blitz swayed me was to change my stance on immigration. Though easygoing Australians have always been among my favorite national types, in the future I vote to keep them out of America. If we could have stopped just one Aussie, Rupert Murdoch, from achieving naturalization, what a much kinder, cleaner, smarter nation we would be. If Rush Limbaugh deserved a lion's share of the credit for getting out the Neanderthal vote in 1994, we can thank Murdoch's Fox News and Fox Radio, the boiler rooms of neo-fascist reaction, for the triumphant return of the American knuckle-dragger in 2010.
It's not true that politics in America are so polarized because both sides are fleeing from the center. Left of center we're just standing here, maybe even edging a little to the right, watching the far right recede rapidly into the mists of its own dismal past. I don't buy the Democrats' self-recriminations, those election postmortems that blame the president for being off-message, unable to communicate his agenda, out of touch with the Real America. I respect the journalism and political views of the author and foreign correspondent Chris Hedges. But I take issue with his pre-election essay blaming "the liberal class" for this latest debacle. "The virulent right-wing backlash we now experience," according to Hedges, "is an expression of the liberal class's flagrant betrayal of the citizenry." He vilifies "the college-educated liberal elite who abetted or did nothing to halt the corporate assault on the poor and the working class."
Nah. This leftish hand-wringing is more out of touch, it seems to me, than the so-called elite it indicts. First of all, there is no "liberal class" of any substantial size or common purpose to be found in America. There are only the micro-cliques of writers, artists, scholars and journalists frequented by people like me and Hedges: well-read, well-traveled Americans with many friends and acquaintances who are not white, straight or Christian. This is not a class but a fragment of one, a smaller group than the reigning super-rich. Most of America's progressive votes come instead from what I call "the decent class," thoughtful, nonideological moderates repelled by loud voices and simplistic solutions.
Second, it might be a trace smug of Hedges to indict his liberal contemporaries for silence and collaboration. I entirely agree that corporate "neo-feudalism," as he calls it, rules our politics and our economy. But even liberals and idealists have to eat, and certainly many of us can claim that we habitually bite the hand that feeds us. Nor are we by definition out of touch with "heartland" people who may be out of work and find solace in Fox News. I wasn't raised in Scarsdale, Belle Meade or a gated community, but in an Appalachian backwater where college graduates were as rare as BMWs, jobs were always scarce and the deer hunters still vote Republican. I knew these people and I know many of them still. I know what's amiable and admirable about them—and what's not. I don't need to be in closer touch with people who leer and snicker when Rush Limbaugh calls the president "Hussein." I'm close enough, thank you.
Though it's true to their traditions and commitments—blame the bourgeoisie, even the educated bourgeoisie, rather than the suffering masses—this is not the time for left-wing masochists to waste time scourging themselves. Better to take a hard, critical look at those masses. Political and economic illiteracy are the rule, not the exception, among voting Americans. Fewer than half of them can identify Joe Biden as the incumbent vice president; a test on basic civics and the Constitution, mandated by Congress and administered only to college graduates, resulted in what the National Civic Literacy Board called "an overall failing grade on a test that measures knowledge of basic American history, government, foreign affairs and economics." Fewer than two-thirds of these scholars could even name the three branches of government. While NBC's Matt Lauer conducted the first post-White House interview with George W. Bush, author of a new memoir and 90 percent of America's current sorrows, three times as many Americans watched Dancing With the Stars.
Where ignorance rules, there are some who are inspired to educate, and usually more who are inspired to exploit. The recession placed unexpected pressure on a lot of underdeveloped intellects, the kind of pressure that tends to ripen the fruits of ignorance—fear, prejudice, envy, misplaced anger and resentment. To right-wing extremists and special interests who had been licking their wounds and scheming since 2008, gnawing discontent represented golden opportunity, the promise of a rich harvest of confused and malleable voters. Though the troglodyte triumvirate of Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity is paid $114 million annually to seduce the subliterate multitudes—for nine hours daily on Fox Radio—the usual lavish smorgasbord of reactionary bile and gibberish was deemed insufficient for 2010. Unleashed by a Supreme Court majority who ruled that corporate campaign spending, even anonymous spending, was the exact equivalent of First Amendment free speech, those dark forces "outside" the political system reached deep into their well-lined pockets and spent nearly half a billion dollars, a quarter of it from "undisclosed" sources, to underwrite attack ads and steer a staggering, half-bankrupt nation to the right.
Mission accomplished. The Greedhead Gospel of cutting taxes, shrinking government, deregulating markets, baiting liberals and berating Obama appears to have a stranglehold on the House of Representatives, promising, at the very best, two years of gridlock and stagnation when we can least afford it. But one thing is certain. Unless those were hedge fund managers out there disguised as home-cooked idiots in leather vests and tricornered hats, there won't be a single long-range benefit for the sad old souls who marched under the tea party's wistful banners. Shrinking or neutering the government never helped anyone with a net worth less than eight figures. You can sell almost anything in America but common sense. This country is notorious, and unique, for all its poor people who want to keep wealth unchained, just in case they should acquire some.
I can't explain why Americans would vote to return to an economic philosophy that imploded in their faces just two years ago, causing most of the misery they're bearing so unstoically. No more than I can explain why a majority of women, for the first time, voted Republican. It may be that voters below a certain level of ratiocination, their logical faculties permanently maimed by reality TV and video games, are no longer able to resist the kind of attack ads that came at them in a $4 billion tidal wave. The big corporate contributors wouldn't fund this operation so generously if they weren't confident of a handsome return. Never in human history has so much cash and so much expertise been devoted to what would once have been called mind control, or brainwashing, and is now called free speech. There's no apparent limit to what the right-wing coalition can spend, or will spend, to bring out the worst in Americans.
On a morning TV show I heard a Democratic consultant describe the outrageous explosion of campaign spending—at $4 billion, up nearly 50 percent from the last midterm election—as "a cancerous growth on our democracy." Next to him, the obligatory Republican, an overgroomed sort of clubwoman, smiled as if the canary still rested on her tongue and allowed mildly that costs are certainly going up, and wait till next time. In Washington, the former general counsel of the Republican National Committee boasted that the 2010 spending orgy was just "practice" for 2012.
If the Democrats seem passive and wimpy—and sometimes they do, for sure—it's partly because most Democrats are not the kind of people who think life and politics are blood sports. They tend to quail from the brass-knuckles butchery that Karl Rove and his disciples throw in their faces, and who can blame them? But the insane flow of dirty money and the vile rhetoric it supported—though they probably spell doom for this venerable democracy—were not even the worst scandal of the election season.
"This is war," declared the egregious Andrew Breitbart, Rove disciple, Republican blogger, media terrorist whose lovely job is to manufacture falsehoods that might discredit or embarrass Democrats. No, politics are not war, you ghastly twit, they're an attempt to reconcile our differences and run a huge country sanely—something Americans used to attempt in good faith, or so I thought. But the unbearable irony is that the nation is waist-deep in two genuine, bloody, hopeless wars that neither side in these elections chose to mention. No candidate had to take a side because no debate was evident. "This Time Around, Both Parties Barely Mention Wars," read the headline in the Times.
But the night before the election, the lead headline on the front page of the Winston-Salem Journal was "Carver Grad Killed in War." Staff Sgt. Adam Dickmyer, a model soldier who spent six years with the elite corps that guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, was killed in Afghanistan by the usual "improvised explosive device." The only front-page headlines from the war zones now are local deaths. The morning after the election, in which 62 percent of voters in exit polls said the economy was the most important issue, a small headline on page 9 revealed that Baghdad had been blown to pieces once again—78 killed, 200 wounded, 13 separate bombings. "Among the fiercest assaults since the U.S. invaded in 2003," said the Times.
In September there were 23 rocket attacks on Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, supposedly the most secure American installation in Iraq. At the same time, insurgents were murdering Baghdad's Christians wholesale, right under our noses. In twice the time it took American troops to defeat Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, our victorious forces have failed dismally to secure this single city in the Middle East, while idiot pundits in Washington keep praising "the surge." In Afghanistan, where President Obama chose to escalate, combat deaths are still rising, the once-puppet Karzai government increasingly distances itself from the U.S. and most Afghanis have made it clear that they prefer the Taliban to the Americans.
The wars are a disaster that has cost our wounded economy a trillion dollars and counting, and will result in no net gain for the United States if we spend 10 trillion more. Torture, war crimes, cover-ups, the lengthening shadow of the Blackwater mercenaries: But the worst part is the way we treat our own soldiers. We've sent them to an almost-literal hell—a daily check of world temperatures usually reveals that Baghdad is the hottest major city in the world—where 5,500 have died and 35,000 have been maimed and seriously wounded. An estimated 300,000 veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. And no one in the mainstream, in either party, really seems to care. "Go to hell," taken literally or figuratively, is America's message to its military. Several Republican senators, to their credit, even caught the Pentagon rigging discharges for combat-stressed veterans to deprive them of medical benefits.
"For most Americans, the wars remain an abstraction—a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally," said the fringe radical defense secretary, Robert Gates, in a recent speech that received little attention. Military service, said Gates, "has become something for other people to do." With no prospect of a military draft because it's poison at the polls, 1 percent of the American population (fewer than 3 million active and reserve volunteers) has been cynically sacrificed to one long war that should never have been and another that should have ended the minute Osama bin Laden escaped. All these wars of occupation are much the same. Years later, the men who started them repudiate them—first Robert McNamara and now the grotesque old warlord Henry Kissinger, admitting on the eve of the 2010 election that American goals in Vietnam were "unachievable."
This summer I heard F. William Smullen III, former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, concede that Powell was "misled" into supporting the invasion of Iraq. "Quite frankly," said Smullen, "he was given some bad information from the CIA. Most of it was coming from a single source, an Iraqi that wanted attention and wanted money."
Good grief. Another headline: "American Influence Dwindling in Iraq." And another that should have caused every American citizen to cringe and grind his teeth: "Bush Looks Back, Has Few Regrets." The wars end, eventually, and it's generally acknowledged that they were mistakes. Sorry. But the dead stay dead, the crippled stay crippled, the damaged stay damaged. Suicides mount among exhausted veterans: 162 in 2009, 125 this year with three months to go. Drug addiction, homelessness, alcoholism, crime. We've created a whole new underclass. Then we hold the most ferocious, expensive midterm election of all time and no one seems to notice the wars? The tea party indeed. Where's the Peace Party? Where's the country's conscience? Where's its heart? Where's its brain?