US elections: Crazy politics and class forces
Jim Creegan examines the campaign of the Republican Party in the 2012 presidential elections
When, in the late 1989, the New York real estate mogul Leona Helmsley was standing trial for tax evasion, her fate was sealed when one of her assistants testified that she had said: “We don’t pay taxes. Only little people pay taxes.” Not only did these words figure in getting the ‘queen of mean’ sent to jail; they also caused a scandal in the media and in the country at large. Everyone in Helmsley’s social set knew that what she said was true, but to say such things to anyone outside her most intimate circle was considered the height of vulgarity and indiscretion.
Now consider the following words, spoken by Mitt Romney to a group of donors at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida in May concerning likely Obama voters: “There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president, no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon the government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing - you name it. My job is not to worry about these people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
The above remarks were not intended for public consumption either. They were discovered by a reporter for the leftish magazine, Mother Jones, on a private videotape, released in September. Mitt Romney went on television hours after the tape became public to say that he had spoken “inelegantly”, but did not retract the substance of his remarks (until weeks later). He declined to do so because these comments, writing off nearly half the American people as parasites and freeloaders, only made fully explicit the deep class contempt that is being voiced with growing boldness by the right, and has in fact emerged as a distinct theme of the 2012 Republican campaign. Sentiments similar to the thoughtlessly blurted-out words of disdain that meant disgrace and jail-time for a nouveau riche vulgarian 25 years ago have now come close to being the slogans of one of the country’s two major political parties.
At the beginning of the Republican primaries in January, there were widespread expectations that the party might adopt a less strident approach. Romney was seen by many, inside and outside the GOP (‘grand old party’), as a ‘pragmatic’ man of the middle with an impeccable big-business pedigree. His late father, George Romney, president of American Motors before becoming governor of Michigan in the 1960s, was closely associated with the now virtually extinct liberal wing of the party. His son made his fortune as the CEO of a financial services firm. As governor of the country’s most liberal state of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney was responsible for the local healthcare reform bill upon which the president modelled the national medical insurance scheme now known as ‘Obamacare’.
Romney’s reputation as a moderate establishment figure made the GOP’s Tea Party base uneasy. The fact that he is a Mormon was also seen as a negative, because many Christian fundamentalists regard that religion as heretical. Thus several challengers put themselves forward early on as right-populist alternatives. But none of these ‘anyone but Romneys’ could hope to match the front-runner’s formidable campaign war chest, or the determination of the Republican establishment’s master strategist, Karl Rove, not to allow the party banner to be seized by any of the bizarre middle class creatures to emerge from the Tea Party swamp.
Not by Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who had earlier entertained the idea of his state seceding from the American union, and who in one debate was able to name only two of the three federal government agencies he had vowed to abolish
Not by the black pizza magnate, Herman Cain, who, in addition to being accused of sexual harassment by two women, advocated the abolition of the graduated income tax.
Not by former Republican senator Rick Santorum, a rightwing Catholic who opposes contraception as contrary to the laws of nature and god, and denounced the constitutional separation of church and state, as well as universities, which he characterised as liberal propaganda mills.
Not by Ron Paul, who advocates an isolationist foreign policy and extreme right-libertarianism at home, including the abolition of the Federal Reserve, and put out a newsletter in the 80s and 90s that, among other racist slurs, called Martin Luther King a world-class philanderer who seduced under-aged girls and boys.
And not by Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, an establishment figure who mouthed Tea Party slogans, but repelled voters with an opportunism crass even by Republican standards, and an otherwise thoroughly arrogant and repulsive personality.
As these challengers fell one by one by the wayside, the nomination settled on Mitt Romney as the party’s default sanity candidate.
But an increasingly fanatical Republican base is unlikely to be inspired by a candidate who not only looks like a Ken doll, but is as stiff and mechanical as one on the platform. Romney is also afflicted with a severe case of foot-in-mouth disease. Readers of this paper are no doubt familiar with his singular achievement of getting himself denounced in public by the leader of the world’s most Republican-like party, and prime minister of America’s closest ally, David Cameron, for implying that London might not have been ready for the Olympics. But it is the pattern of domestic campaign gaffes that gave voters a glimpse into the insulated world of wealth the Republican standard-bearer takes for granted.
In one campaign speech Romney said he favours private health insurance because it allows people to get rid of a given plan if it does not meet their needs. He then added that he “liked to be able to fire people” who do not give him what he wants. The liberal media instantly made the connection - if it escaped the notice of the candidate himself - between this remark and Romney’s role as former CEO of Bain capital, a vulture capitalist firm that specialises in taking over various companies, ‘downsizing’ them (read: giving a good number of employees the sack) and then flipping them for a profit.
This was only the first of a string of blunders long enough to run the length of the campaign trail . During one of the primary candidates’ debates, Romney casually offered to bet one of his opponents $10,000, as a less prosperous individual might wager $10. Stopping in Detroit, Romney attempted to highlight his support for the auto industry by revealing that his wife “drives a couple Cadillacs”. Seeking further to burnish his common-man credentials, Romney said that not only was he a fan of (American) football and stock car racing, but was personally acquainted with several team owners. His wife, Ann, also sought to counter suggestions that she and her husband were oblivious to the concerns of ordinary folk, when, comparing her fortune unfavourably to that of Bill Gates, she said, “I don’t really consider myself wealthy” (the Romneys have an estimated net worth of $250 million, with a good chunk of it stashed in the tax shelters of Bermuda and the Cayman Islands).
In the beginning, Romney steadfastly refused to release his federal income tax returns. When it was pointed out that his father, entering the Republican primaries in the 60s, made public 10 years of his returns, his son reluctantly consented, at different intervals, to release his filings for 2010 and 2011. With most of his $13 million income for 2011 coming from stocks and bonds, the Romneys paid an overall rate of just under 14%, approximating the 15% levied on capital gains in the current tax code. A person earning $35,000 in wages, on the other hand, would pay over 20%. Romney wants to cut capital gains still further.
Yet Romney’s offhand bits of ruling class candour, rather than being a cause for embarrassment to his party, were a mere foretaste of untethered class arrogance to follow.
In the past, both parties have sought to distract attention from their shared pro-business agenda by playing up non-economic, so-called social issues: defence of ‘family values’ (opposition to abortion and gay marriage), opposition to immigration and racial resentment for the Republicans; support of ‘choice’ and ‘diversity’ for the Democrats (the rights of women and minorities that many Democrats favour are by no means unimportant or merely diversionary; they are, however, non-class issues with which Democrats put a ‘progressive’ veneer on their austerity agenda). The attempt by both parties to hide behind ‘social issues’, however, is undermined by persisting high unemployment rates and mortgage-delinquency foreclosures, which place economic questions at the forefront of this campaign. The Republicans, of course, have adopted blaming Obama for the continuing mess as their principal tactic. But this has not acquired the traction they hoped for, since the continuing crisis originated under George W Bush, and an economic focus only raises questions about the remedies the Republicans are putting forward.
In fact, they have nothing more to offer than the budget balancing and trickle-down economics they have peddled for decades: encouraging ‘job creators’ (read: capitalists) to invest by removing government constraints on their profit-making and favouring them with ever greater subsidies and tax breaks. Yet these gifts to the ruling class were presented to the public in the past at least partly as technical prescriptions, motivated by concern for the unemployed. The Romney campaign, while also motivating its policy ideas in the usual ways, cannot seem to resist the additional temptation to present them as moral imperatives based on the intrinsic worthiness of rich people.
The initial step in the direction of frontal class assault was Romney’s pledge to make the repeal of ‘Obamacare’ his first order of business if elected (despite the fact that it is modelled on a bill Romney himself authored, underscoring the candidate’s complete inauthenticity). The second step was taken in mid-August, when Romney selected Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate. Considered the intellectual Wunderkind of the Republican Party, this 42-year-old member of the House of Representatives from Wisconsin, and Tea Party favourite, had recently emerged as the GOP point-man on budgetary matters.
Ryan claims to be inspired by the Ayn Rand doctrine of transcendental selfishness (except for her atheism, which he, as a Catholic, disavows). He made a name for himself in 2011, when he introduced a radical budget bill that passed the Republican-dominated House, but was defeated in the Democratic-majority Senate. With the nomination of Ryan as number two on the ticket, Romney chose to elevate the essentials of this bill (‘Ryanomics’) to the status of a national Republican platform.
The Ryan budget advocates big reductions in government programmes that benefit the poor and elderly in the name of reining in government debt and ultimately balancing the federal budget, despite the fact that Ryan himself voted for 66 fiscally expansionary measures during the Bush administration, under which most of the present federal deficit was accumulated. Moreover, Ryan’s numbers do not add up. The cuts he proposes - in government-sponsored student loans, food coupons and medical care - would save the government about $1.7 trillion over the next 10 years, according to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (August 20). At the same time, Ryan favours increasing military spending, and proposes tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy that would cost the government about $4.3 trillion over the same period. Ryan says he will make up the difference through the closing of tax loopholes he refuses to name, and further spending cuts he also declines to identify.
By far the heaviest blows of Ryan’s budgetary axe will fall on the old. He advocates raising the minimum eligibility age for social security (government old-age pension) from 65 to 67 and subjecting the benefit to means testing. (His earlier budget included a proposal to convert part of social security to private accounts, although this has now been dropped.) Ryan also advocates turning Medicaid, which provides free medical care to the indigent, into a “block grant”, to be administered by the states according to their own rules rather than as aid from the federal government, to which all qualified applicants are now entitled.
But his most audacious proposal is to turn Medicare - which pays the bulk of hospital and doctor bills for those over 65 - into a voucher plan. Instead of the current guaranteed cover for 80% of all medical bills, Ryan would give each “senior citizen” a fixed amount of money with which to purchase private insurance. Though pegged to current costs and indexed to inflation, such vouchers could hardly keep pace with the notoriously skyrocketing costs of healthcare. Ryan, to be sure, is nimbler on the hustings than his running mate. But are his public relations talents worth the risk of frightening the older people who comprise the country’s largest single voter demographic, including the older white voters who make up a substantial part of the Republican base? It is doubtful whether Ryan’s fulsome assurances that his plan will not affect those now over 55, or that traditional Medicare will continue to remain an option for seniors, will serve to allay suspicions that his attack on the most popular government programme since the New Deal is only the first step in a plan to do away with it altogether.
By making a direct attack on key elements of the ‘welfare state’ the centrepiece of his campaign with the selection of Ryan, Romney seems to calculate that his main chance for the White House depends not on capturing undecided voters, but rather in maximising turnout among the GOP’s Tea Party enthusiasts. The efforts of Karl Rove and co did in fact succeed in keeping some the party’s zanier middle class characters from capturing the nomination. But the candidate actually chosen as the party’s more respectable face is nevertheless pushing the Tea Party economic agenda.
‘We built it!’
The Republican national convention, held in Tampa, Florida at the end of August, was the high point of a campaign that lived up to the party’s reputation for mendacity.
Shortly before it opened, the party had been running television adverts claiming that Obama aimed to abolish the federal work requirement for welfare payments, adopted under Bill Clinton. Although the assertion had no basis in fact - Obama in fact sought to give the states more leeway in determining what kind of work recipients would do - the Republicans refused to retract the advert. At the convention itself, Paul Ryan gave an acceptance speech in which he sought to blame Obama for the closing of a General Motors plant in Ryan’s home town of Janesville, Wisconsin. He neglected to add that the closing took place before Obama took office, under the presidency of George W Bush - a non-person at the convention due to the fact that his eight-year presidency was a universally recognised debacle. When it was pointed out to him that Ryan’s statement was deliberately misleading, a Republican pollster named Neil Newhouse replied: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
The standard Republican ‘social issues’ were also in the Tampa platform, including an anti-abortion plank that made no exception for rape victims. Romney sought in addition to appease rightwing, anti-immigrant sentiment at the expense any potential appeal for Latino votes: he vowed to veto the Obama-sponsored Dream Act, which would give illegal immigrants brought to the US as children a path to citizenship via university enrolment and military service. He also voiced support for building a wall across the Texas-Mexico border to keep Mexicans out.
In addition, Romney advocates a vaguely more aggressive US foreign policy, aimed at restoring America to its status as undisputed world policeman, but has provided few specifics. Partly to repay his biggest single campaign donor, an international gambling casino magnate and arch-Zionist named Sheldon Adelson, Romney has accused Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus” for not being tougher on Iran. Romney has also made some noises about Obama being a bit too friendly to the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. But the favourite Republican trope of accusing the Democrats of weakness on ‘national security’ falls flat when levelled against the president who killed Osama bin Laden and has made drone strikes his foreign policy signature.
Talk about ‘social issues’ and foreign policy, however, could scarcely be heard above the thunderous affirmation of bourgeois supremacy that was the keynote of the convention. “We built it!” read the banner draped across one wall of the stadium. The slogan was an implied riposte to remarks of the Democratic Massachusetts Senatorial candidate, Elizabeth Warren, later echoed by Obama, to the effect that business-owners and investors did not build their enterprises entirely with their own two hands, but relied on services provided by the larger society as well. The ‘it’ of the slogan was ambiguous enough to refer not only to business, but to the country as a whole, the implication being that, since ‘we’ white property-owners were the ones who built ‘it’, ‘we’ are also ‘its’ rightful owners. Paul Krugman commented:
… the fact is that the modern Republican Party just doesn’t have much respect for people who work for other people … All the party’s affection is reserved for “job creators”, aka employers and investors. Leading figures in the party find it hard to even to pretend to have any regard for ordinary working families - who, it goes without saying, make up the vast majority of Americans .… consider Mr Romney’s speech at the Republican national convention. What did he have to say about American workers? Actually, nothing: the words ‘worker’ or ‘workers’ never passed his lips.
…. And when Mr Romney waxed rhapsodic about the opportunities America offered to immigrants, he declared that they came in pursuit of “freedom to build a business”. What about those who came here not to found businesses, but simply to make an honest living? Not worth mentioning
…. In the eyes of those who share this vision, the wealthy deserve special treatment, and not just in the form of low taxes. They must also receive respect, indeed deference, at all times. That’s why even the slightest hint from the president that the rich might not be all that - that, say, some bankers may have behaved badly, or that even ‘job-creators’ depend on government-built infrastructure - elicits frantic cries that Mr Obama is a socialist (The New York Times September 21).
The right turn in the Republican Party has been the occasion of much argument and analysis, not least in the pages of the Weekly Worker. Is the party’s ‘extremism’ driven by an increasingly frenzied petty bourgeois base, or have its big financial backers moved sharply to the right as well? The answer seems to be a bit of both.
This writer has tried to analyse the class composition and social psychology of the Tea Party’s enragés in a previous article (‘Tea Party tempest’ Weekly Worker March 18 2010). Upon reflection, I think that article, which emphasised the ethnic and generational aspects of the Tea Party, gave short shrift to what is perhaps the movement’s principal bond: the myth of the heroic, self-reliant entrepreneur. The myth goes beyond the Tea Party. It is the bedrock of American false consciousness. No politician, Republican or Democrat, can give a speech these days without paying homage to ‘small businesses’ at least two or three times. Big business people often like to pretend to be small ones; workers who own little more than the houses they live in and the cars they drive have business cards printed up; and even some self-proclaimed socialists have abandoned the notion of social planning in favour of ownership by workers at the enterprise level. At its core, the myth is borne of the desire for social autonomy. It is mythological because it overestimates the degree of autonomy that the petty bourgeoisie actually has, as well as the opportunities society offers for their success But does it lack all relation to reality?
Many Marxists tend to be dismissive the role of small business, deeming it insignificant in corporate-dominated economy, and regarding its continuing hold on the American imagination as a residue of times gone by, like legends of the wild west. But Wall Street historian Steve Fraser, in a recent review of Pity the billionaire, criticises the assumption of its author, Thomas Frank, that the world of the petty entrepreneur is largely a thing of the past:
… the tumultuous evolution of capitalism over the past hundred years - especially during our age of ‘flexible capitalism’, with global corporations offloading all sorts of functions once performed internally onto a menagerie of contractors, subcontractors and ‘free agents’ - has repeatedly offered fresh possibilities for small and medium-sized family businesses, even while power and wealth are being concentrated elsewhere. This world can’t be consigned to some museum of early capitalist curiosities just yet (The Nation May 21).
Commenting further on small-business psychology, Fraser adds:
… among men and women who have struggled to create their own businesses (or dream of doing so), and whose determination is an affirmation of their self-reliance, ingenuity, discipline and moral stamina, conflating the free market with freedom is instinctive. It is a passion, blind as passions can be. Consequently, they are reluctant to credit their material dependence on an array of local, state and federal government programmes and bureaucracies … (ibid)
Small and medium-sized entrepreneurs do indeed have their grievances against big banks and corporations. But the grievances are often insubstantial compared to the aspirations that incline the small proprietor to regard the big bourgeois as a model. Did not the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg come from middle class obscurity? The ruling class must, after all, renew itself periodically from outside its ranks. Although the old American fortunes (Rockefellers, Mellons, etc) have by no means disappeared, the 80s and 90s saw the rise of great new fortunes based on the junk bond, high tech and real estate manias of those years. There is still, in other words, a significant interface between the big and petty bourgeoisie.
Many of the new billionaires are middle class parvenus who retain the go-it-alone attitudes of middling ranks from which they rose. Unlike the bluebloods who came before, they never faced the challenge of revolutions abroad or labour battles at home. They live in financial-sector and high-tech bubbles. The only workers many come in contact with are chauffeurs, secretaries and office cleaners. They therefore have little use for the rhetoric of class conciliation or noblesse oblige. They see no need to pose as custodians of the capitalist system as a whole, or to engage the services of the politicians, lawyers or social engineers who try to sell them their expertise in smoothing over social conflicts. They see themselves engaged in a competition in which success depends upon mastery of the advanced technology and arcane financial instruments from which today’s great fortunes flow. The Everests of lucre upon which they sit are, in their eyes, the reward for mastering the techniques and playing the game better than anyone else. If, as they believe, money is the principal measure of intelligence and worth, and they possess it in multiples inconceivable to the ordinary person, by those same multiples do they think they exceed the ordinary person in intelligence and worth. They demand not only recognition, but celebration, of their superiority. They see themselves not as skimmers of profit, but as creators of wealth, and as such the main benefactors of society.
Mitt Romney surely panders to these attitudes, but also to a large extent embodies them. The existing tensions between the top and base of the Republican Party should not be taken as indicating the existence of two hardened factions. It is true that the Republican establishment does not want the party represented by the crazies or idiots who proliferate in small town and suburbs. But those at the top believe their billions come from individual creativity and relentless striving, while those at the base believe that these two virtues are their path to the top.
Wall Street for Romney
The big Wall Street players are casting an early vote for Romney with their cheque books. This is a major change from 2008, when Obama raised about $16 million from the financial sector, compared with John McCain’s $9 million. This time round, the $4.8 million raised by Obama from Wall Street as of June was dwarfed by the $37 million that flowed to the Romney campaign (Slate June 13). The cascade was facilitated by the Supreme Court’s ‘Citizen’s united’ decision permitting unlimited corporate political donations, which has fuelled multiple super-PACs (political action committees), with untold amounts of cash.
This Wall Street shift may seem peculiar in light of the fact that the financial sector has prospered under Obama. There is, however, widespread grumbling about the Dodd-Frank bill, which, in the wake of the 2007-08 meltdown, placed certain less than ironclad limits on the ability of bankers to speculate with their own funds, and created a Consumer Protection Bureau, which Obama made a point of placing under banker-friendly supervision. But even minimal nods in the direction of regulation were apparently too much for the rough and ready guys of the stock exchange.
But what really irks Wall Street is the blood-curdling anti-capitalist rhetoric that Obama has unleashed against them in the last couple years. Take for example the gauntlet he threw down during last year’s budget-ceiling battle: “If you are a wealthy CEO or hedge-fund manager in America right now, your taxes are lower than they have ever been. They are lower than they have been since the 1950s. You can still ride your corporate jet. You’re just going to have to pay a little more (The New Yorker October 8).
Chrystia Freeland, a chronicler of the lives of these thin-skinned John Galts, reports that a highly influential hedge-fund manager, Leon Cooperman, considers words like these “a declaration of class warfare”, on a par with the rantings of Hitler (ibid).
Fly in the ointment
Political democracy has always presented certain difficulties for the bourgeoisie. Chief among these is that the majority of people for whose votes they must appeal live from work and not off property, and cannot therefore always be counted to lend a sympathetic ear to travails of the of the ruling class. Hence there have arisen in the democratic age modern bourgeois parties that have elevated the concealment of the class’s real interests, and the manipulation of popular fears and prejudices, into a highly polished art.
There is, moreover, a division of labour between the bourgeoisie and its political minions. The former rake in the profits and supply the funds, while the latter, much like public relations firms, invent the strategies and slogans intended for mass consumption. But when, as in the case of the Romney campaign, the ruling class - self-infatuated, afflicted with historical amnesia and besotted with riches beyond the dreams of Croesus - begins to drop its inhibitions and proclaim its superiority from the rooftops, problems will arise. Even when aided by the notorious lack of class-consciousness among American workers, and backed by a solid layer of the petty bourgeoisie, demanding that the people sacrifice so the rich can thrive can still be a hard sell. This is why the Republicans are attempting to supplement their paeans to private property with the second, more practical tactic of voter suppression.
Efforts to restrict the franchise are being carried out at the state level, in states with Republican-majority legislatures and/or governors. Their ostensible purpose is to curtail voter fraud, a phenomenon that in fact is virtually non-existent. From 2002 to 2007, federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for voter fraud out of 300 million voters. A report by the New York University School of Law stated: “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than he will impersonate a voter at the polls” (Rolling Stone August 30 2011).
Yet the past several years have witnessed a spate of state laws that aim to restrict early voting, deny the franchise to convicted felons, eliminate same-day voter registration, and require photo IDs on election day. Attempts to pass such laws have been made in many states, but are particularly significant in the ones known to go either way in national elections, the ‘swing states’ of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Reminiscent of the poll taxes and literacy tests intended to keep blacks from voting in the Jim Crow south, they create obstacles deliberately designed to affect precisely those groups whose voting surges gave Obama his 2008 victory: blacks, Latinos, poor people and the young. All pretence of combating voter fraud was flung to the winds by the Pennsylvania Republican House majority leader, Mike Turzai, when he remarked upon the passage of one such legislative measure: “Voter ID, which is going to allow governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania. Done.”
But Turzai’s law, along with many other such voter-suppression efforts, are being overturned in various state and federal courts. And, more than that, the Boca Raton “47%” video, discussed above, rendered unmistakable in millions of minds the message the Republican Party has been projecting in slightly less explicit ways since the beginning of the campaign: that it is a party of property and privilege, dripping with contempt for everyone else: ie, the majority. Immediately following the revelation, not only Obama, but Democratic candidates all over the country, received a substantial boost in the polls, as Republican contenders for House and Senate seats scrambled to distance themselves from their party’s standard-bearer.
At the time of writing, Romney has rebounded somewhat as a result of a nationally televised debate in which he tried to soften the party’s image with confidently delivered lies about its own publicly declared positions. Obama, still filled with the spirit of capitulation that has marked his first term, was unable to punch back, throwing his supporters into a panic. But, in this writer’s opinion, Romney’s second wind will soon be spent, and the ruling class majority that backed him will awaken on the historically freighted election-day morrow of November 7 to find themselves the victim of the fall that pride precedes. And from that fall, they might just have wit enough left to conclude that the rhetoric of class conciliation and shared sacrifice deployed by Obama is still more effective in disarming the working class than the politics of ‘in your face’.