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 villagevoice.com 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.
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.
For the big-money boys, naturally, it’s all the better if America’s once prosperous citizenry is reduced to a mass of TV-badgered wage slaves. The big money’s behind the Bush cabal’s frenzy for deregulation, limits to damage and malpractice suits, relaxation of environmental and product safety standards, and everything else that’s going to make this country a little worse every month for the next four years. Like the big government bureaucracies that the right wing is always complaining about (while it banquets on their largesse), corporate capitalism is a faceless entity with no human interests. Unlike government bureaucracies, however, a corporation has no human responsibilities; its only obligation is to make money. It doesn’t care how it does this or who benefits. Ask yourself, “Cui bono?” about any corporate action, and the answer obviously isn’t the nation. Nor, as recent collapses have demonstrated, is it the shareholders (who nominally are the company) or the employees. So the only people who really profit when a corporation gets the Bushians to shred another sector of the social or ecological safety net are the top executives—the minute percent of Americans who have actually gotten richer over the last four years. They can’t buy a consensus, but they can buy, apparently, just enough votes to squeak an unmitigated criminal incompetent into the White House.
And since they have all the psychological tools of mass-marketing at their command, they can buy the public distractions that confuse less-watchful voters. Just now, the minute-percenters are hungering for your Social Security contributions, so expect some massive spin on this subject, though the Social Security system appears to be in sufficiently fine shape to survive with only minimal adjustment for at least the next 35 years. As with Iraq’s mysteriously vanishing weapons of mass destruction, the needless “overhaul” of Social Security is an excuse for what’s likely to prove another disastrous and costly quagmire, for which, again, your grandchildren will have to foot the bill. The future is not relevant to corporate interests.
Neither is Christianity, which was the big fake issue of the campaign and the source of the most heartening e-mails in my inbox. Though the reductive network version tried to make this election all about “faith-based” issues, a startlingly large number of Christians of every sect were eager to tell me they understood the difference between church and state. They too were frustrated with the noisy minority that wants to reduce the power and the glory of their religion to a set of knee-jerk issues. Christianity, in this dehydrated version, means you’re anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, and anti-stem cell research. Just add vindictiveness. As for what you believe and how you conduct your life, those are metaphysical matters we don’t bother with anymore, right? Such a constricting, totalitarian view is as repugnant to Christian teaching (“Judge not, lest ye be judged”) as it is to constitutional law. Why should abortion be such a pivotal issue for Christians? If the answer is, “because it’s murder,” then why would a Christian vote for the party that legalizes assault weapons and campaigns for the death penalty? It’s intriguing that “faith” tends to choose issues that rile people’s emotions, rather than those that awaken their beliefs. One could theorize, for instance, that the anti-abortion movement is merely a capitalist plot: The more unwanted children get born, the more uneducated low-wage workers are available, and the less you need to pay them.
So I was moved to hear, from so many devout Christians, that they saw through the fake-Christian scam, and that it was urging them not to a disgusted repudiation of their church, but to a deeper study and renewal of the principles of their faith, which is not based on bullying and bigotry, but on love. Given the obvious Jewishness of my last name, of course, I also received a fair sampling of the bullying and bigotry. I was told that the Democrats lost the election because “Jews control the liberal media,” which makes little sense—and made even less after a few writers on the other side told me that Bush’s agenda was all a “neocon Jewish plot” hatched by Leo Strauss’s students at the University of Chicago. It’s apparently an article of faith among bigots that Christians can’t do anything unless a Jew tells them to.
Which could be said to prove that, even by their lights, I won the election, since those who hate me believe that I run the country. And, in fact, I do—as one among millions. The flood of mail in my inbox taught me that those millions, quiescent after years of economic boom under the Democrats, are waking up. As the disastrous results of Bush’s policies start coming home to roost, their voices, which carry the nation’s conscience, will increasingly be heard. I’ve heard them, and I believe. And unlike religious visionaries who hear voices, I have the e-mails to prove it.