With the Elections, a New Reckoning

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published October 27, 2010, issue of November 05, 2010.
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At last, this bizarre election season draws to a close. How it will end, no one can reliably say. We read of widespread anger, we know something of the widespread dislocation that is the continuing consequence of the Great Recession, we watch with concern the widespread emergence of a cohort of candidates who seem peculiarly ignorant and, in some cases, simply peculiar. And we watch with alarm, no matter our partisan dispositions, the suddenly infusion of sums of money that threaten a lasting shift in how politics happens in this country.

Pause: I re-read what I have just written, four sentences that accurately reflect my perception of what’s going on these days. But they are merely accurate, and that suggests that they are not close to adequate; the truth is orders of magnitude harsher than my sober statements suggest. It is not in the least surprising to me that among my friends there are those who are preparing their sackcloth and ashes for the day after the votes have been counted. These elections seem especially fateful, signaling both the abrupt end of what was to have been a new age and the beginning of a time of genuine revanchism — that is, revenge, or the recovery of lost territory.

That is perhaps an overheated way to think about what may be coming. But considering that among the candidates for the House there are 63 who have formally pledged to oppose abortion even in the case of rape or incest (and six more among the leading non-incumbent candidates for the Senate) — not merely opposed to federal dollars being used to pay for such abortions, but opposed to their legality at all — and considering, more generally, the coalescence of a significant class of candidates who support repeal of the recently passed health care reforms, who oppose the new regulation of the financial industry, favor the privatization of Social Security, think the science that undergirds global warming is “fraudulent,” who, in short, approach government with contempt — considering all that, if the fears are overheated, it’s not by much.

The wonder here is not that there are so many candidates such as those I have described; the wonder is that there is so much popular support for such candidates. It is one thing to share in the distemper of the times. It is another to endorse policies that just yesterday had seemed to be rotting on the junk-pile of history, policies that breathe new life into the comatose culture wars. Who are these people, these fellow citizens? Truth is, neither I nor any of my friends “gets” them. I understand the nefarious Koch brothers, the avaricious hedge fund managers, all those for whom greed is their underlying motive. (Go see the new documentary, “Inside Job.”) But the jobless, the foreclosed, the suddenly downwardly mobile? Why do they align with the profiteers — or, to use a classical word that’s back in vogue, the oligarchs?

The wealthiest one percent of Americans receive roughly a quarter of all income. And the wealthiest one-tenth of one percent collect roughly the same income as the entire lower-earning half of the population (some 66 million households). Since such records have been kept, the income differential in America has never been greater than it is today. Are these not circumstances one might expect to generate class conflict?

But this is America, and we don’t know from class warfare per se, or even class consciousness, haven’t known about them since the heyday of union organizing in the early decades of the 20th century. These days, the only Americans who demonstrate class consciousness — most for ill, some for good (as George Soros, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates show) — are the very rich.

Although Republicans seem to be the major beneficiaries of this curious and distinctively American phenomenon, the leaders of the Democratic Party are hardly innocent bystanders. It is impossible to estimate what part of their collusion with, say, Goldman Sachs, derives from their need to raise campaign funds in ever larger amounts, itself a recipe for scandal, and how large a part is played by their own easy identification with the culture of power. The disposition of Democrats to empathy for those who have been left out or locked out of the American dream, for whom that dream now feels no more attainable than a winning lottery ticket, is genuine. But for too many of them, that disposition shares the agenda with other habits and temptations that point in quite different directions.

Once, it was possible in the face of political calamity to say, “Well, at least there’s the Supreme Court to hold the line on liberal democracy.” But since Bush v. Gore, that bastion has crumpled.

The fat lady has yet to sing, most of us have yet to vote and life is full of surprises. But, once the voting’s done, whichever way it goes, we’d do well to seek and find ways to enter into dialogue with those who see the world and nation we share so differently from us.


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