MUSINGS ON THE 2006 MID-TERM ELECTIONS
The day before the most recent Thanksgiving found me working at a downtown firehouse. Shortly after lunchtime, a representative of the Union League Club of Chicago brought in a gourmet Thanksgiving feast for 24 (there were only twelve people assigned to the house) complete with chef’s instructions for reheating and serving. As we expressed our gratitude for the thoughtful and timely gift, the representative made it clear that “we (he spoke on behalf of the Club) appreciate what you guys do.” I had no doubt that he was sincere in his gratitude, but his expression got me thinking, anyway.
I can vaguely recall later in the day when one of my colleagues wondered aloud why the Club would bother, knowing as they must that we are well paid and could afford our own Thanksgiving meal. This colleague was not being ungrateful; he was just making an observation. I answered reflexively that he should not underestimate the sincere and practical appreciation that the wealthy and powerful have for law enforcement and other emergency services. As I put it crudely at the time, we protect them (and all their privileges of wealth) from chaos.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was vocalizing something so fundamental to our society that it is hardly, if ever, discussed. The U.S. is like much of Western civilization in that it is highly stratified along class lines. Unlike our English cousins, however, we Yanks go out of our way to deny the existence of class. We are all aware of the great disparities in wealth distribution, and we are equally aware of the privileges that are generally available to those of the various socioeconomic strata. However, though these class differences stand nose to nose with each one of us, we pretend that they are of little importance.
This is due, among other things, to two factors. First, there is the tremendous amount of wealth available in our country. Though a large percentage of the world’s population lives and dies experiencing little beyond abject poverty, the poorest of our poor are often a job, a welfare check, or a kicked drug habit away from a dignified, if austere, existence. I’m simplifying, of course, but my point is that there’s a hell of a lot more to spread around here, even if it is spread around more inequitably than in any other industrialized Western nation. Second, our culture harbors a tendency to self-congratulate that precipitates the denial of our blemishes. This contributes to the poor being blamed—and blaming themselves—for being poor, and to the rich (even those who inherit all their wealth) being given credit for being rich. The myths that hard work is automatically rewarded with wealth and comfort and, conversely, that wealth and privilege only flow toward the most deserving are hyped by our popular culture and by our corporate media and, to a degree, internalized by us all.
The preceding factors contribute to ignorance and denial of the very structures that maintain the disparities of wealth and privilege. These structures are complex and often fluid—that is, they aren’t easy to explain and categorize, and they often change to adapt to the times. For that reason, I won’t get into an attempt to try and describe them. What is important for the sake of this offering is to note the place of the public servant in maintaining these structures within a purported representative democracy. Where the basic concept of democracy (‘one person, one vote’) suggests an equality and homogeneity of power among all citizens, the gaping wealth disparities among citizens and households of a capitalistic society represent another, almost diametrically opposed reality. Between these two concepts exists a friction that must be alleviated if the society is to continue to function.
In Latin American countries over the past century or so, these frictions—resulting from the disparities of privilege and power between the wealthy and the not-wealthy—have usually been lubricated with brutality and intimidation. This is a trend which our government has perennially supported and facilitated; it has benefited both the local elites and the U.S.-connected business interests that profit from the subjugation of the local masses (the latter partners transfer much of their profit back to the U.S., and that helps ease the friction here). We have also carried on similar policies in the Middle East, though in less overt and nakedly colonial ways than our Western European cousins did in Asia and Africa in decades past. Fittingly, multinational corporations (and the neoliberal policies adopted to protect those entities) have carried on the wealth-redistributing role of the colonial empires. It also follows that nearly every armed conflict since the end of WWII can likely list among its motivating factors a money-making opportunity for Western financial interests.
Domestically, though, the glut of available material wealth renders naked government brutality superfluous at least most of the time. There is an unspoken understanding—bolstered by the widely accepted assumption of the U.S. as a meritocracy—that one should accept one’s place even if that place is unsatisfactory by no fault of one’s own. In other words, everyone is supposed to assume that the brass ring is theirs for the grabbing.
Not everyone accepts this assumption, though. Those from the lower classes who speak out against the structurally maintained disparities are labeled ingrates, whiners, ‘communists’, or worse. Those few from the upper classes who vocalize discomfort with the status quo are ignored, patronized, or advised to donate to charities and keep their mouths shut. I believe, though, that most wealthy people—including those who are involved in elitist activities such as the Union League Club—are well aware of the disparities of the system. Most of them are also aware, if only subconsciously, that they are less the beneficiaries of meritocracy than of (somewhat fluid) oligarchy. This awareness explains a lot.
It explains why the Union League Club would send a Thanksgiving feast to a firehouse. It explains why they—and other social hubs for the wealthy—would make a point of expressing their gratitude to a bunch of overpaid, underworked emergency services workers. These wealthy people understand that their wealth is meaningless without the maintenance of order, and that said order incorporates the social as well as the physical and financial. They don’t gripe too hard over high property taxes, because they know that the infrastructure they’re paying for is the same one which generates and protects their lion’s share of the wealth. More cynically speaking, they also understand that the average government emergency services employee comes from a background that is (in socioeconomic terms) closer to that of the less wealthy majority than to their own. These wealthy folks understand that chaos (the kind that results in even police officers and firefighters becoming dissatisfied to the point of quitting) will lead to mass dissatisfaction and anger among those with less; once the material impact of the chaos becomes suffered widely, it won’t be long before those with the most wealth become targets.
Still, not all wealthy people have this horse sense. There are those for whom there can never be too much, and their greed inspires within them contempt even for the relative safety of the established order. Perhaps these nimrods look with envious satisfaction upon the dictatorships, secret police, and death squads of Latin America and the Middle East and see a model that they’d like to bring home.
I’m not inventing this archetype. It does exist, and it has collectively funded what was at different points in time known as New Conservatism, the Reagan Revolution, or goodness knows what else. Labels aside, there has been a growth of right-wing political influence in the U.S.; it was and is fueled by a massive influx of cash toward the construction and maintenance of a conservative media matrix (you can learn more about this dynamic here and here). The conservative media revolution helped to influence public opinion on all sorts of crucial issues: it rewrote (and helped maintain the distortion of) the history of the Vietnam War, it successfully mainstreamed the racism that brought the Republicans into power, and it convinced millions of working-class people that hypothetical abortions were more dangerous than a lack of comprehensive health care.
In the past quarter century or so, these aggressive conservatives have begun to have their way more often than not. Their favored policies—which seem intent upon driving the nation back to pre-New Deal socioeconomic conditions—have gained a disturbing degree of traction. While this is due in part to the abandonment of many lower-class-friendly domestic policies by the supposedly populist Democratic Party (at its worst under the neoliberal love fest that was the Clinton administration), it could be argued that these aggressive conservatives have gone too far. Under the dubious leadership of the George W. Bush administration, the remaining pillars of the social order have been directly and deliberately threatened. While the nation’s economy has arguably grown overall in the past few years (in spite of the Bush administration’s and the Republican-led Congress’s foolhardy tax cuts and expensive military adventures), the toll this has taken on the non-wealthy has been noteworthy. The future costs of these neofeudal policies are incalculable, but even the most dulled critical faculties among the masses must be aware that the current course is at least somewhat problematic, if not entirely unsustainable.
Perhaps that awareness is what nearly neutralized usually reliable right-wing trump cards like abortion and homophobia in the latest midterm elections. Perhaps enough of the voting lower classes saw that they were more likely to suffer from the economic and political fallout of the debacle in Iraq, or from a successful scuttling of social security, than they were to suffer from two men getting married somewhere.
I think, more importantly, that enough wealthy and influential individuals can no longer deny that their more aggressive peers have begun to poison the well so egregiously that no one—no matter how wealthy—would eventually be able to drink safely. That is why so many Democratic candidates came up with the funds to compete successfully with seemingly entrenched Republican candidates. While the wealthy/corporate reflex to support right-wing candidates must be difficult to deny, I think things have gotten so bad that enough money found its way in the Democratic direction.
For example, the massive cock-up in Iraq, touted as a major source of voter discontent, was more than just materially expensive and politically damaging. It is the result of aggressive conservatives getting their way without reservation. (See Antonia Juhasz’s book for more on this; in a sense, what the Bush administration did in Iraq is quite similar to what some conservatives would like to see done here.) It is an undeniable symbol of aggressive, feudal conservatism uninhibited. It is bleeding, dying proof of the unsustainable nature—from the perspective of the sensible and truly conservative oligarchy—of radical and cutthroat right-wing ideology. I believe that the Democratic victory in the 2006 mid-terms was more the result of the wealthy and powerful reining in their recalcitrant peers than it was the lumpenproletariat rebelling against the status quo.
I believe that there are enough wealthy and powerful people who understand that part of what makes this country great is that its founders understood the need to balance the inherent power and influence of the wealthy against that of the common folk. Democracy is meaningless if it has no protection from the power of concentrated wealth, and any prudent student of history will understand that a nation of pissed-off people can only be soothed for so long by even the enlightened artifice of the ballot box.
Granted, I haven’t given much evidence to support my opinions. So I’ll offer you a link to the following op-ed by Senator-elect Jim Webb (D-VA), which I learned about through Billmon (who has his own edifying analysis) and Flo. As you will see, it was printed on the ultra-conservative (and practically goose-stepping) Wall Street Journal Editorial Page. That, in itself, speaks volumes.
American workers have a chance to be heard
by Senator-elect Jim Webb (D-VA)