I've successfully immunized myself to the horse-race fever of presidential elections: the relentless polls and fundraising totals, the endorsements and lame speeches and could-be-fatal gaffes, worst of all the dim psychoanalysis and fanzine micro-dissection of candidates who always looked much alike to me. I was inoculated against most of this when I was fairly young, thanks in part to reading the convention reporting of H.L. Mencken, who took American democracy like a recreational drug and relished every hysterical high.
The political animal at his most ridiculous never amused me as much as he amused Mencken. His excesses can still reduce me to tears, even though I'm old enough to remember presidential candidates with actual convictions and commitments, instead of pollsters, bundlers and message-masseurs. It always catches me by surprise when the media resume their election coverage as if they'd learned nothing whatsoever from all the elections that came before. Are the media themselves now under such a state of siege, is the public's attention span now so brief that four years is enough to erase every scrap of residual wisdom? It looked that way to me when I read a news-service "think piece" in my local daily, an essay explaining "the stark philosophical differences" that separate Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
I groaned so audibly that my wife asked me if I was having chest pains. This writer, I thought, is he 12 years old? First of all, no one mentions philosophy in the presence of Romney, who embraces any philosophy his ambition finds convenient and will, before his race is run, embrace as many more as his handlers recommend. And Obama, vilified on right-wing radio as a cross between Jomo Kenyatta and Malcolm X, between Rap Brown and Toussaint L'Ouverture? This is a white woman's son with a rich white man's education, a cautious, pragmatic man of the middle, like most Republicans used to be—like Mitt Romney before the White House bug bit him, like his father, George Romney, before him. Obama is a mild-mannered white attorney with a slight genetic handicap. He loves golf. In every way except that inappropriate pigmentation, he's a country-club Republican (vintage, not current) like Mitt.
In another climate, another decade, another turn of the wheel of fortune, they could have been comfortable running mates—if the fastidious Obama could have put up with an awkward fumbler like Romney. Philosophy? Romney has no philosophy, Obama only as much as he needs from week to week. The American political system seems designed to feed celebrity-addled media, which focus on the forgettable faces and generic utterances of the latest candidates, never on the forces that produce them or the deeper issues that tear this country in two.
Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, was featured in another front-page story presenting his intellectual pedigree. His infatuation with Ayn Rand was enough to convince me that he's an arrested adolescent, but there in bold letters on Ryan's list of mentors was my old schoolmate Bill Bennett. Sometimes we literally don't know whether to laugh or cry.
I chose to laugh. We will see these faces 10,000 times before Nov. 6. (I'd never stoop to the face game myself, but is Ryan actually Eddie Munster grown up and Nautilus-hardened?) Yet the only faces that matter in this election are the faces of the founders and dead presidents printed on America's folding currency. The U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision is the Rough Beast whose hour has come round at last, unleashing evil billionaires and subterranean oceans of corporate cash, tidal waves of it, under which the American democracy may vanish like lost Atlantis.
We are in deep water, in deep trouble here. It matters not at all that Romney is a Mormon or that he was mean to his dog, not at all that Obama is a Protestant with a jump shot and a wholesome marriage. It does matter, though only symbolically, that Romney was what Rick Perry calls "a vulture capitalist" and that Obama is not white—not white according to the old slave-state standard, which established that there's no such thing as half-white (or three-quarters or seven-eighths).
Who they are, or what they say or believe is beside the point; everything in this critical election rests on what they represent. Just because I choose to ignore the conventions, the debates, the PAC-paid TV commercials and the hurricane of expensive spin doesn't mean I think this election is meaningless. Quite the opposite. It is, in contention only with 1968, the most significant presidential election of my not inconsiderable lifetime. And I remember Ike's first victory over Stevenson very well.
This is one we can't afford to lose. If you're not sure who "we" might be, I hope to make it clear. Amid all the inanities and distractions of an election that parliamentary countries dismiss as a wasteful "beauty contest"—though few beauties compete—it's still possible to recognize certain omens, subtle signs that lead us toward the reality of America at a turning point. All summer the signposts kept appearing. One was the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement, less visible now and no longer a media staple, but historic for its forceful assertion that economic inequality is the fatal malignancy that politics as usual will not cure.
The One Percent, remember? Between the bursts of assault-rifle fire that punctuated the summer season's motiveless massacres, beneath the mindless thunder of huge PACs colliding, behind the mind-numbing slapstick of Republican congressmen reinventing gynecology and skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee, a populist anthem seemed to be playing softly, for anyone who would pause to listen.
July 14, Bastille Day, marked the 100th birthday of the Dust Bowl troubadour Woody Guthrie, who wrote "This Land Is Your Land" to warn the One Percent of his day that other people lived in this country, people who might not stand idly by while the plutocracy bought up our birthright and fenced it off. Woody's heroically subversive verse, "I saw a sign, it said 'No Trespassin', but on the other side, it didn't say nothin', that side was made for you and me," is a political and spiritual touchstone that divides Americans, and probably the human race, into two irreconcilable camps.
Who did I mean by the "we" who can't afford to lose this election? I meant all of us grinning, instead of scowling, when we hear that verse of Guthrie's. But the One Percent of 2012 owns a far greater percentage of America's wealth—four times more—than it owned when Woody rode the rails during the Great Depression. Gated communities, rare in his day, wall off whole counties in ours. And Lawrence Downes writes in The New York Times that Woody's son Arlo, the wistful hippy of Alice's Restaurant, is now a Republican. Say it ain't so, Arlo.
In August, Liveright published the collected diaries of Guthrie's British contemporary George Orwell, an equally eloquent champion of the eternal underdog. It seems unlikely, though not impossible, that they knew each other's work. In an entry dated June 3, 1940, reacting to some twit's lament that the war would deprive the rich of their cooks, Orwell wrote a line that would make a fine epitaph for Romney's candidacy: "Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99 percent of the population exist."
But the coincidence that grabbed me most forcefully was the death in August of the science-fiction writer Harry Harrison, whose 1966 novel Make Room, Make Room became the 1973 film Soylent Green, with Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson. If you could call Soylent Green a cult film, surely the cult is very small. But I'm one old-timer who remembers it well. It's set in the New York City of a distant future—2022—when the world is so hopelessly polluted and overpopulated that the rich have retreated to fortified barbed-wire compounds with armed guards, where they continue to lead the good life, somewhat circumscribed. The poor—the rest—mill about the streets in homeless herds, squat in abandoned buildings and subsist on government-issued crackers known as "soylent green."
A grisly twist the filmmakers added to Harrison's plot was that the crackers were actually the processed corpses of the poor, who could escape their misery in Ethical Suicide Parlors where they died peacefully amid video images of all the beauty and pleasure their lives had not included. Heston plays a police detective who lives in a wretched tenement with his decrepit partner (Robinson). Crimes among the rich occasionally enable him to enter their fortified apartments, where in one scene he steals a spoonful of strawberry jam, for him an unimaginable luxury. He also steals a single leaf of fresh lettuce and takes it home with him, where he and Robinson marvel over such a windfall before they divide and reverently devour it.
Most of you reading this are not arugula-deprived—perhaps you have more salad greens wilting in the crisper at this moment than the average third-world omnivore has ever seen. One of the year's most depressing statistics is that obese America now wastes 40 percent of its food—$165 billion worth annually—while hundreds of millions of human beings suffer from chronic hunger.
Necrophagia is still rare, even in depressed and primitive red states, though the tea party (like the Donner Party) endorses it in cases of "legitimate" starvation. But poverty is spreading rapidly in America. It's increased by nearly 3 percent since the beginning of the 2008 recession and now engulfs one in six (47 million) citizens, its highest level since 1965. Among children the rate is much higher, 22 percent in 2010. And there's still a 10-year countdown to 2022, when Harry Harrison calculated that overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans and global warming due to the greenhouse effect would have created the terminal dystopia of Soylent Green. Once dismissed as science fiction, in 2012 it's beginning to look more and more like prophecy.
Those of you with a weakness for New Age eschatology may be anticipating the end of the world on Dec. 21, 2012, a calculation based on the 5,125-year cycle of the Mayan Calendar. But it's Nov. 6 that frightens me. The first giant step toward Harrison's dystopia was total corporate control—absorption—of all forms of government. Soylent Green, manufacturer of the ghastly crackers, is also a huge international conglomerate. In Harrison's scenario, corporate feudalism has long since succeeded in disenfranchising and degrading everyone without financial leverage. If the Republicans win the White House and both houses of Congress and press forward with a Rand-Ryan-Koch brothers blueprint for America, we'll be right on schedule for something much like Soylent Green by 2022. The Hard Right, without apology, opposes unions, federal arbitration and regulation of the workplace. Are there people who actually hold jobs, or seek them, who haven't realized that this is a program to reduce them from employees to serfs to slaves?
You have to give the Republican high command some credit for the purity, the transparency of its purpose. When it chose Ryan, Randist ideologue and far-right budget wonk, to run with Romney, quarter-billionaire and gilded veteran of the vulture markets, the corporate plutocracy asserted its control of the Republican Party and the urgency of its desire. No more ego-clowns like Newt Gingrich or Herman Cain, medieval theo-geeks like Rick Santorum or dizzy morons like Michele Bachmann, whose agendas only get in the way of the hunger of the One Percent.
What does it want, the big One? Everything. Everything. This micro-minority of the very rich now holds nearly 40 percent of all the private wealth in this country, a share that's tripled since 1980. The one-tenth of one percent, the obscenely rich, have tripled their annual income in that 30-year period, to an average of $5 million, while the inflation-adjusted income of the "bottom" 90 percent—the American people—has actually declined by 5 percent.
Numbers are numbing, but there are volumes of them, many more shocking than these, to attest to the metastasizing inequality that shames and cripples us. And the response of the very rich who now control the Republican Party? Well, they resent taxation, environmental policy and government itself if it threatens to interfere with the flow of profits and the steady stream of America's wealth into the deep, deep pockets of the greediest people who ever lived. We own nearly everything, the One Percent declares when it presents the populist-crushing ticket of Romney and Ryan, but we won't be satisfied until we get the rest.
If you find this level of selfishness and cupidity astonishing, you probably haven't read the novels of Ayn Rand that inspired Rep. Ryan to seek public office, as he has testified. A fair example of Randian philosophy in action: New Orleans is devastated by a hurricane, as it was in 2005 and might have been again during the recent Republican Convention, and there's only one emergency helicopter available. If you're a faithful Randian, you land it on the roof of the Exxon-Mobil headquarters, to make sure no top executives are endangered, even though hundreds of plebeians may be drowning or screaming from their rooftops.
No exaggeration. A less dramatic but equally effective exercise in social Darwinism is Paul Ryan's magic budget. It guts Medicaid, food stamp and low-cost housing programs by an estimated $3.3 trillion over 10 years, while tossing the very rich yet another tax cut. Rand's is a merciless philosophy, an intellectualization of the Law of the Jungle that says, essentially, screw the weak and the meek and make way for the bold and the greedy. If you have nothing, it declares, you deserve nothing—not even a chance to protest that you never had a chance.
The gospel of Ayn Rand is the perfect contradiction of everything ever preached by Jesus Christ. It's much to their credit that several Roman Catholic groups, nuns and Jesuits, have chastised the Catholic Ryan for his attachment to the atheist Rand. Her appeal is limited to young people, usually male, who are arrested in the infantile stage Freud describes as pure id—the "Gimme!" stage—and who tend to overrate themselves as potential supermen.
Not all of them outgrow it. Ryan's Randian economics, which celebrate avarice and sneer at conscience, are a made-to-order framework for the Last Grasp, a daring bid for absolute power by the Republican One Percent. (Every millionaire with a murmur of conscience now votes Democratic.) How, you might ask if you don't understand America, could such a tiny minority control an election, with a program that seems to benefit so few and harm so many? The best answer is that the extremely greedy are not the only extremists in this country, and the Republican Party has built a formidable new power base by cynical appeals to every extreme.
A Big Tent the GOP may not be—it's nearly 90 percent white and weighted heavily toward older males—but a wild and colorful tent-full it is, more like a carnival sideshow than a circus big top. The gluttons share their stage with racists, nativists, misogynists, homophobes, gun freaks, religious fundamentalists and fanatics of all denominations, and gonzo libertarians who hope to restore the gold standard. Along, of course, with a healthy harvest of dimwits—the extremely stupid—and a fair sprinkling of apparent mental patients. In the last group I'm obliged to include birthers, deniers of climate change, EPA-eliminators and everyone who thinks a private citizen should be able to acquire 6,000 rounds of ammunition for an automatic weapon.
If you'll eagerly cut your own throat—and your childrens' and your neighbors'—to express Caucasian solidarity or preserve your right to an AK-47, you're just what they're looking for. In a nation where most people think clearly and behave generously, a party like the current Republicans would be impossible. The entire unruly menagerie, still bloody from its raw-meat primaries, hopes to coast to victory behind a squeaky-clean Mormon mega-millionaire, a reformed moderate who tries to hide his tax returns and his intimate history with Goldman Sachs.
When you describe this GOP contraption, it sounds like a vehicle that would never start, far less lap the field. But there are at least two compelling reasons why it could win. One is the horrible effect of the Citizens United decision, that triumph of corporate personhood that has unleashed the great PACs and multiplied the scandalous influence of money in American elections.
The gross, florid face of the new reality—pandemic top-dollar "democracy"—is the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the human embodiment of Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Adelson is worth roughly $25 billion, which means that if he were a dollar, the embarrassingly rich Romney would be a Lincoln penny. He has vowed to spend at least $100 million to defeat President Obama, and since that announcement Republican candidates have followed him around like hungry puppies. Romney virtually carried Adelson's suitcase on his recent tour of Israel; the moment Ryan was chosen as Romney's running mate, he hastened to Vegas to kiss Adelson's ... ring.
Dirtier money than Adelson's would be hard to find. Is it a sane legal system that lets marijuana dealers rot in prison while casino owners, who exploit the far more destructive human weakness, can live like sultans? Among the many unsavory things about Adelson are his casinos in Macau and Singapore, where reporters have been exploring rumors of bribed Chinese officials and prostitution, and his ultra-right newspaper in Israel, which supports the immediate bombing of Iran and whichever wars that might precipitate.
The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Adelson's Macau operation for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Daily Mail of London accused him of "despicable business practices" and charged that he had "habitually and corruptly bought political favour." The paper was consequently sued into silence. Unlimited legal intimidation is one of the great prerogatives of billionaires.
Adelson's lone virtue is a certain feral honesty. A former Democrat, he admits he became a Republican when he tried to crush his employees' unions and realized the Democrats wouldn't help him. He never tries to hide the fact that he uses his money to shape legislation to his own advantage, as well as Israel's. His billions in overseas income are currently taxed at the shamefully low rate of 9.8 percent, and no doubt Mitt Romney has promised him another tax break.
Can you swallow that? Monstrously wealthy international pirates like Adelson, with agendas that contain no benefits for America or Americans, are the tragic dead end of our political system unless we can overturn Citizens United and put Big Money back in its box. Along with the largesse of the heinous Koch brothers, who bankrolled the tea party and launched the outrageous crusade against climate science solely to protect their energy investments, Adelson's millions are now evident in the flood of televised ads disparaging Obama's health care reforms. According to Paul Krugman of the Times, hardly neutral but a Nobel laureate in economics, every one of these ads is a gross distortion and many are impudent lies. But in the field of political advertising, unlimited resources often overpower limited intelligence by repetition alone.
Yet Adelson and the Kochs aren't even the best cards in Romney's hand. The recidivist South, where the electoral map is now colored solid red by the most optimistic Democrats, is no longer worth pursuing by a president who isn't colored solid white. I don't know exactly what the tea party represents in Wisconsin, where it's in love with Ryan, but I'm pretty sure what it represents in the South. For years now we've watched surly old white men of modest means raging about "Obamacare," using silly words like "socialist" and "fascist," when it seemed clear that the president's well-intentioned but inadequate overhaul of the health care system could only work to their advantage.
Health care issues have nothing to do with their hatred of Obama. But it's still considered bad form (though less so of late) to say flatly "I want that black man out of the White House." I'll bet my ranch that 80 percent of the Southern tea party's active members voted for Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, and no doubt George Wallace before them. Most of them are old enough to have their roots buried deep in Jim Crow. And so here we go again, with progressive Southerners hanging our heads in shame.
Down here they don't fool us, the geezers in the leather vests and Johnny Tremain hats. Obama reanimated a generation of dormant racists, and they're determined to take back Air Force One. Of course the One Percent, who for the most part are not racist—or anti-abortion, or gun-loving, or homophobic, or religious, either—are delighted to play the race card and hope the Southern Sickness can defeat Obama. Once in office, the Wall Street Republicans are likely to ignore this unsavory constituency that elected them. Most ominously, only the NRA and Adelson's Israel lobby have the money and muscle to make a Republican president keep his promises.
Adelson-Romney-Ryan is quite a triumvirate. A colossus spewing rancid money, The Face—handsome, impossibly rich and remote, no fixed identity—and The Brain, dispensing phony theories to justify them all. It's cynical and improbable, but it's working well enough. This election is not at all about voting for a candidate you admire, or a party platform that echoes your ideals. It's about trying to defeat what you have every reason to loathe and fear.
Obama has not been the president I hoped he would be, and the Democratic Party, to which I've never belonged, may be a poor vehicle for anyone's passions. But the truth is that the bad people, the worst Americans, were once divided fairly evenly between the two parties. Not all Republicans were grasping and reactionary, not all Democrats (read the Dixiecrat, segregationist South) were broad-minded and compassionate. Since the GOP Southern strategy converted the Old Confederacy, however, most of the bad people are Republicans—bad as in prejudice, predatory self-interest and social irresponsibility.
Incredibly, the GOP has convinced most of its blue-collar foot soldiers that government is their enemy and that corporations—job creators?—are their friends. This is possibly the greatest fraud ever perpetrated on the ignorant. To a predatory capitalist, government is merely another factor, an impediment or a useful tool in his pursuit of carte blanche, the wide-open hogs-at-the-trough marketplace of his dreams. To the rest of us, elected government—the result of our votes—is our only leverage, the only weapon we have left in a "democracy" where clamorous dollars drown out human voices.
And those jobs? Campaign candy, free-market myth. If you're unemployed and broke and seeking salvation by voting Republican, let me assure you that the Soylent suicide parlor is an equally promising choice. The London-based Tax Justice Network recently reported that the world's super-rich—a third of them Americans—have cached between $21 million and $32 trillion in offshore tax havens. Just pick a middle number, notes Al Lewis in The Wall Street Journal, and it's a sum that exceeds the annual gross domestic product of the U.S., China and Japan combined. That's right: Pirates have looted this country of wealth beyond our comprehension, and buried most of the treasure they're alleged to be reinvesting.
Though they dominate our world and covet all that's in it, Mitt and his mega-rich live in a world all their own. Very often they sound like it. As he dropped a nickel, a mere million, in Romney's cup and endorsed him, the North Carolina billionaire Julian Robertson explained that America needs a successful businessman to rebuild its economy. Excuse my condescension to my eminent fellow Tar Heel, but someone should tell Robertson that the U.S.A. is not a business, not a profit-seeking entity. A nation is a cooperative—a commonwealth—whose elected officials are charged with managing common resources for the common good. Do even Princeton graduates and hedge-fund wizards recycle Fox News clichés?
This coalition of wealthy vultures, Kool-Aid drinkers and political neanderthals is not the Republican Party of even 20 years ago, as Bob Dole and Dan Quayle, of all people, have protested in their recent warnings against extremists. The most intelligent Republicans are no longer well-intentioned, and the most well-intentioned are not intelligent. The party we saw in Tampa has strayed so far from an honest account of itself that almost nothing it says makes sense or rings true. It's true that the U.S. economy is still disappointing, but Republicans promise to heal it with the same Republican policies that made it sick: tax cuts, military misadventures, and lax regulation of markets and banks.
Their favorite word is freedom, yet they frown on every form of freedom I can think of—civil rights, reproductive rights, workplace rights, gay rights, even the right to clean air and water. The only rights they defend are the right to make or steal as much money as possible and squirrel it away, and of course the sacred right to arm ourselves like third-world terrorists.
If they prevail decisively in these elections, and I'm not betting against them, it probably spells the end of the U.S.A. as a viable political experiment. Our cannibal capitalism will have killed us; the One Percent, having devoured the 99 percent, will be suffering indigestion. Give us just eight years of increasingly obscene inequality, environmental devastation, unchecked global warming, belligerent foreign policy, a shredding social safety net and a powerless proletariat, and the prophet Harrison's Soylent Green will be right here, friends, and right on time.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Soylent Mitt."