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Campaign Reflections: Resentment Abhors a Vaccum
by Paul Street
October 26, 2004

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The election is too close to call.  Last time I looked (yesterday), the fellow who runs had Bush with 254 electoral votes and Kerry with 253 and listed Florida, yes Florida, as an absolute tie. The count changes every day.  Still, my sense, and I could most certainly be wrong, is that Kerry will sqeak in... in spite of himself and his campaign.  I've been surprised at the large number of Kerry-Edwards signs I've been seeing on farms throughout rural Illinois and Iowa. 

And the buzz I've been picking up outside of the big blue metro is that "it's time for a change" in the top office because Iraq is a disaster -- actually worse off and more of a "danger" because of a sloppy invasion that is costing young American lives for dubious reasons -- and because the economy is a mess in ways that can't simply be blamed on 9/11 and the terrorists. 

Of course, it's a lot easier to spin overseas developments than domestic economic realities: no amount of presidential deception can convince people that they have more money in their bank accounts than they actually possess or that they haven't been unemployed for nine months.  This is part of why it may have been the right call for the Kerry campaign to make foreign policy, Bush's supposed strong suit (it's hard to imagine anything being Dubya's strong suit), the leading focus of the campaign.  Curiously enough, most voters who say the war in Iraq is a big factor in their vote are voting against Bush.

There's a widespread sense among women voters that Bush is just too stubborn he can't bring himself to admit maybe just one tiny little mistake beyond making some poor appointments. 

And perhaps there's something else afoot. While I was driving in Iowa last Friday, my car radio somehow picked up a Christian Fundamentalist radio station in another swing state -- Pennsylvania.  Between outbursts of creepy, over-emotive religious music, an angry southern-twanged fundamentalist radio jockey denounced Bush and Cheney for sending young Americans to die in a distant war when the president and vice-president had done everything they could to stay out of bloody mess war they both supported when they were young men: the Vietnam War. 

Before the signal faded out, I heard the religious commentator praise Bush and Cheney for being anti-abortion but then criticize them for being callously indifferent to what happens to non-affluent people once they are actually born.  There's a populist working- and lower- class content to fundamentalism that is not inherently 100 percent reactionary.

There's a fair measure of Bush fatigue and Bush disgust out there, enough that Kerry would be leading by 6 or 7 points or more if he had any charisma and if he and his handlers had shown any willingness to really mobilize the people who are most victimized by Bush's policies and to talk in a meaningful way about the deep injustices of life in the United States -- the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialized world (Kerry would be the richest president since the ultra-Cold Warrior and Vietnam War escalator JFK I, by the way) by far.

Meanwhile, liberal forces (ACT especially) have been signing up droves of new voters, most of whom will vote for Kerry.  And I do not expect Nader to be the factor he was in 2000, for obvious reasons.

But even if Bush loses, he will get a shockingly large number of votes from working-class white people and white farmers who will be choosing against their own pocketbook interests -- workers don't need the repeal of the estate tax, the elimination of what's left of the progressive income tax, the privatization of social security, the further elimination of union organizing rights, the further starving of public schools, the repeal of workplace safety rules and overtime protections, the stagnation of the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax credit, for example -- because they see the Republican Party as the one that gives vent to their righteous dissent against the arrogant Liberal-secular-humanist-socialist-moral-relativist- New York Times-reading and Espresso-sipping Establishment that supposedly runs the nation into the spiritual ground through its dark conspiratorial control of the public schools and mysterious universities, the "liberal media," and a radically offensive mass culture that streams an endless spectacle of salacious Left Coast exhibitionism across virtuous middle American television screens.

The book to read on this --- and for my money the book of the campaign season ---- is Thomas Frank, What's The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2004), a brilliant reflection on the ongoing "Great Backlash" -- "the popular revolt against a supposedly liberal establishment." One of the many things that makes Frank essential reading is his solid grasp of the role that the in-fact thoroughly capitalist mass entertainment culture plays in feeding the paranoid-populist backlash to the right. Frank is neatly adept at showing that the working-class Buschon's embrace of Republican politicians may be "deranged" and "self-destructive" (you vote against abortion, for gun rights, and for Christian values and you get your public schools yet more impoverished, your overtime protections stolen, the chance of sending your kid to college pushed further back, and your scandalous sex-addicted media yet more deregulated, etc.) but that it flows partly from the miserable elitist corporate-takeover of the Democratic Party and from the in-fact often nauseating and narcissistic behavior of the the post-New Deal Democratic establishment's various celebrity supporters and other associated limousine liberals. 

Working and lower-class resentment abhors a vacuum. In the absence of any serious left oppositional movement and culture in the US much of it has been flowing into the dangerous river of Republican reaction. 

A similar process of sorts has long operated in the Middle East, where discontented masses victimized by capitalist "modernization" and "globalization" have flocked into extremist and anti-modernist Islam.  They have done so in the absence of secular-left nationalist and social-democratic alternatives, which have been powerfully attacked by the US and its allied autocratic oil states in the region. 

It's almost too perfectly perverse, the way that an attack on a massive global-capitalist structure in the capital of the supposedly liberal capitalist US Establishment --- the WTC towers in New York City on 9/11 ---by agents of the US-supported Middle Eastern fundamentalist backlash worked to the initially stunning advantage of a US president who is partly the product and agent of fundamentalist reaction against the very savage capitalist excess that he richly embraces. 

No matter which pampered son of super-privilege wins, Skulls and Bones Kerry or Skull or Skulls and Bones Bush (I've argued at length as to why we would want the former over the latter, and this without the slightest illusion about how far Kerry has traveled down the conservative path and the likely composition of the next US Congress), the left will face many of the same issues. It will need to mount a full court press for bringing back the troops from the bloody and illegal occupation of Iraq now, not 2 or however many years down the road under the imperial designs of either the Buschons or the Kerrymods. It will need to fight the tyrannical corporate power that has hijacked the policy agendas of both parties.

And it will need to pick up on the lessons of both past progressive movements (labor, populists, and civil rights) and the popular right Backlash by constructing a social and organizational movement (and "movement culture") that can contest the loyalties of middle-American working-class people who are in fact heavily victimized by Buschon policy.  Only on some sort of solid and inspiring popular organizational (and movement-cultural) basis can it take on the in-fact elitist Liberal elements who have surrendered and/or abandoned the populist agenda and joined the Neocons in deriding the issue of social and economic justice as obsolete "class warfare" and in taking the people's economic issues off the table. 

Resentment abhors a vacuum.

Paul Street is a writer and researcher in Chicago, Illinois. His book Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 is now available from Paradigm Publishers. He can be reached at:

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