America Floods My Inbox

Or, how Bush lost, and restored my faith in democracy

After all the vote fraud controversy, I might as well confess: I'm the one who actually won last November's election. That's how I feel, anyway. I wasn't running for office, I received zero campaign contributions, I was named in no exit polls, and I got no votes. All I did was sit down, the morning after the election, and write "Our Vanished Values" (November 10-16, 2004). Next thing I knew, I'd racked up more Web hits on than I'd gotten for my last 50 theater reviews combined, Bill Moyers was on the air asking a politically sagacious nun what she thought of my remarks, and my inbox was flooded with e-mails from 38 states and a dozen foreign countries. What was it Red Skelton supposedly said about the crowd at movie mogul Harry Cohn's funeral? "Give the public what they want to see and they'll come out for it."

The extraordinary variety of the response fascinated me. The bulk of the e-mails, of course, came from people who agreed and simply wanted to thank me. These were naturally the most gratifying, but any chance I might develop a swelled head was deflated by the significant number who, while agreeing in general, wanted to take issue with this or that particular point. As these letters moved rightward on the political spectrum, their tone also changed, from quibbling to earnest argument to sneering hostility and then to outright abuse.

Apparently, as well as pleasing a lot of people, I'd made a good many others angry. One or two even told me to "shut the fuck up," as if reading me had somehow become an obligation, which they bitterly resented, making my very existence as a writer the equivalent of an ill-mannered tourist's irritatingly loud chatter during a Broadway show. Maybe that's how Bush supporters view his administration's performance: It's a lousy show, full of empty mechanical gestures and tinny canned music, with third-rate replacements instead of real stars, but they paid big bucks to see it and they're not about to let some smartass spoil their fun by pointing out that they've been rooked.

The Bush administration: It's a lousy show
The Bush administration: It's a lousy show

Nobody likes to get rooked. Which is why, this time around, the winners seem so much angrier than the losers: The Republican camp, as Thomas Frank and others have pointed out, is puzzlingly full of people who voted against their own interests. The rest of us can take heart from knowing that their number has been overestimated. Even if you assume that Bush won this election—and a lot of e-mailers were anxious to tell me that he didn't—he won it by the most pathetically slim of majorities, a poorer showing than any sitting president has made since the public turned against Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Anyone applying the word "mandate" in this context is a liar. Even the red-state/blue-state opposition of which the media made so much is, if not a lie, at least an exaggeration: My inbox, I was startled to discover, was crammed with messages from small-town red-staters deploring their neighbors' Bush enthusiasm. I heard from folks who shared my feelings not just in Costa Mesa and Cedar Rapids, Massillon and Missoula, but in places far from the standard routes of liberal thinking: Hermitage, Tennessee; Arvada, Colorado; Corrales, New Mexico. It was gratifying to learn that the American tradition of dissent is as far from dead out West and down South as it is south of 14th Street. This country's not two big lumps of red and blue; it's more like a polka-dotted red-and-blue zebra.

The election's deeply divided results should hearten us because they reaffirm something that has lately tended to fade out of our political conversation: the idea that disagreement itself is one of our central values, that the opportunity to hold dissenting opinions is one of the innate human rights for the protection of which this nation was founded. The impulse to shout down or automatically discredit anyone who disagrees with you is at least as old as American politics itself. In an age when the vast power of electronic media is concentrated in a relatively small number of hands, the degree of manipulation that the power holders can bring to bear on any issue is fearsomely large. Because the Bush administration's procedure has been either to lie about or to conceal every single action it takes, it has had to put an enormous amount of effort into suppressing or countering dissent on topic after topic: firing whistle-blowers; bribing journalists to shill for its policies; hiring lackeys to fake up accusations about Kerry's war record while playing sleight of hand with Bush's own; twisting war powers out of Congress with hoopla about nonexistent weapons of mass destruction; and so on. Some comfort for believers in democracy can be found in the knowledge that these and countless other Bush regime frauds have been exposed, that factual information on them is readily available despite the flood of misinformation and disinformation released in the effort to keep them covered up, and that at least half of America, probably more, knows better.

To conceal so much fraudulence while conducting a national campaign takes a lot of money, and the Republicans didn't stint. Another comforting thought is how little they got for their dollars. Over 90 percent of all corporate PAC contributions last November went to the Republicans. For that 90 percent, the business guys got back the pathetic 51 percent majority. It doesn't take a Wharton graduate to see that this makes Bush the worst industrial investment since the Edsel. One of my correspondents asserted that our currently anemic dollar would make American products more competitive on the world market, but there aren't so many American products these days; the same business moguls who think Bush is so great have been systematically outsourcing our factory jobs. In the last few years, the lower rungs of white-collar jobs have been following them: Unemployment isn't dropping, and the trade deficit just hit a record high. Welcome to the service economy in which everyone works three jobs, and good luck paying off your student loans as a non-union Wal-Mart cashier.

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