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Week in Greed #18: They Were Careless People

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I remember that it was late at night and I was returning to my dorm, having just watched Ronald Reagan win re-election with an unprecedented 60 percent of the popular vote. Down the hall I could see a familiar figure lurch drunkenly.

“Hey Almond!”

This was a guy I’ll call Trent, a hockey player from a wealthy Long Island family. He knew I hated Reagan. “Ronnie won!” he bellowed. “He got 500 points. The other guy got, like, three points. Three fucking points! How’s that feel, loser?”

The other guy was Senator Walter Mondale. He is perhaps the last presidential candidate to have run a truly liberal campaign. At its center was his support for the Equal Rights Amendment and a nuclear freeze. He also made the terrible mistake of announcing his intention to raise taxes to close the massive budget deficit Reagan’s tax cuts had created. “Let’s tell the truth,” he said. “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

But the reason I still remember this moment is because I could see, for the first time I’m afraid, that the world didn’t share my idealistic conception of politics. To Trent, the election was sport, nothing more and nothing less, an event by which to register his own sense of power in the world. He couldn’t have told you what Reagan or Mondale stood for, what they wished to accomplish. He just knew Reagan made him feel like a winner.

And this was important to Trent because buried just beneath his macho posturing was a crushing insecurity. He was a lousy hockey player, a benchwarmer, and his girlfriend was cheating on him and nobody much liked him. He reminded me of Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby—that long sad poem about American desire and ruin. Like Tom, Trent was a guy with a “cruel body … forever seeking the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.”

Anyway, there he was down the hall, drunk, fresh from an election night party at his frat house, where had no doubt been the butt of jokes about his inadequacies as an athlete and a man, and I had come along at just the right moment.

“Hey Almond,” he said. “Hey Stevie. Come on now.” He stumbled towards me and said, almost tenderly, “Your guy lost because nobody liked him.”

***

If history gets the final word, President Barack Obama will be counted as a moderate technocrat who spent either one, or two, terms in office digging the country out of a recession caused by greed, extracting us from two costly and foolish wars, and restoring America’s standing in the world.

He wasn’t the visionary that many folks thought they were electing, but he got some important stuff done in the face of a congress whose proudly broadcast goal was to make sure he didn’t get re-elected.

It is a testament to the moral deficits of the modern Fourth Estate that reporters and editors would tolerate such monstrous cynicism. Still more remarkable is the fact that the members of the editorial board of newspapers such as the Des Moines Register endorsed Mitt Romney specifically because they believe he can work with Congress. (These editors—without even realizing it, I suspect—are the reason the GOP has chosen to pursue gridlock over genuine legislative effort. They will continue to do so long as there are editors and citizens stupid enough to reward them.)

As for Willard Mitt Romney, he is the candidate the modern Republican Party was bound to nominate: an upscale salesman with an algorithm where his soul should be. He is a man whose core beliefs about the world—corporations are people, my friend … I’m not concerned about the very poor … my job is not to worry about those people—represent the ultimate ascendance of special interests over human ones.

By some measures at least, his campaign has been remarkably transparent. Staffers have been quite open about their willingness to lie, and shift positions to suit the political moment. The first debate confirmed the wisdom of this approach. Romney was hailed as a brilliant tactician.

In other crucial respects, the Romney campaign has been cloaked in secrecy. Despite his vast wealth, he refused to release more than two years of his tax returns, or the names of his biggest fundraising “bundlers.” And the vast majority of the dishonest ads run on his behalf were funded by the dark money of Citizens United.

Romney has spent most of his campaign obscuring, distorting, or just plain lying about what he hopes to do in office. Even his most ardent supporters know, to a degree that is both unprecedented and terrifying, almost nothing about his policies.

Most of them know in their hearts that he’s a dishonest man. But they’ll vote for him anyway. They are voting, in this sense, for their own cynicism.

***

As I write this, most statistical models suggest that Obama will be re-elected. But it’s a close race, and one that has been marked by a consistent Republican effort to disenfranchise voters who are economically and culturally at risk.

What I fear—in some sense more than a Romney victory—is a scenario in which the democratic intentions of the electoral process break down, as they did in 2000 (Florida) and 2004 (Ohio). Can you imagine how horrible that fight would be for our entire country?

I’m not trying to be an alarmist. I’m merely reacting to what we already know: that early voting hours have been dramatically reduced in states controlled by Republicans, such as Florida and Ohio, that lines have been long, that ballots have already been discounted, that Republican officials are, even as I write this, making nakedly partisan efforts to disenfranchise voters, that polling places have been overrun by combative advocates.

In essence, the GOP is seeking to apply their approach to governance—obstruct progress than excoriate the process—to the election itself.

***

It is hard to overstate the degree of cynicism at play here: If you can’t win based on your policies, lie about them. If that doesn’t work, make sure those who support your opponent can’t vote. Confuse them. Inconvenience them. Scare them.

If there’s a single reason for you, the reader, to spend the next 36 hours working for Obama’s reelection, it is this: if you don’t, you leave the fate of the country in the hands of people who don’t believe in fair elections.

To quote the country’s paper of record, The New York Times: “Even now, many Republicans are assembling teams to intimidate voters at polling places, to demand photo ID where none is required, and to cast doubt on voting machines or counting systems whose results do not go their way.”

My advice is to urge everyone you know to vote, especially friends and relatives in swing states. Put the touch on people. Write personalized emails. Make calls, especially to folks who may not consider themselves “political.” Volunteer at a phone bank. Think of it as an investment: a few hours upfront in the hopes you won’t spend the next four years in anguish. It’s a pretty good deal, when you do the math.

***

As for the voters in swing states, and the Obama campaign, and those who consider themselves professional journalists: the goal has to be to preempt the sort of debacle that marked 2000 and 2004.

In those cases, most Americans never witnessed voter disenfranchisement directly. But today, most citizens carry with them a powerful tool: phones with the capacity to take pictures and video.

It is my unsolicited advice that some fair-minded tech genius set up a website (right now) that allows voters to upload pictures and videos, if their right to vote is abrogated—either by a polling official, or simply because a polling place closed before they could vote. Snap up a domain name such as IWasDeniedMyVote2012.org [Editor's Note (via a comment below): In fact, such a site does exist: http://www.videothevote.org/].

If you’re a legal voter who wants desperately to cast a ballot, but you can’t afford to wait four hours to vote because you’ll get fired and you have a family to support, take a video of yourself at your overcrowded polling place. Tell your story.

If you’re a voter in Ohio or Florida or Pennsylvania who is waiting in line and it becomes apparent that you’re not going to get to cast a vote before your polling place closes, make a video and explain what’s happening. Don’t just give up and leave.

You can’t prove voter disenfranchisement ex-post facto. You need to show people what it means in real time, in moving pictures, so they can see the injustice.

Then make sure that these videos are immediately transmitted to reporters at local television stations and newspapers. This is the only way Republican governors such as Rick Scott and John Kasich will be compelled to extend voting hours—if the media pressures becomes great enough to overwhelm their partisan motives.

Every legal voter who wants to cast a ballot tomorrow should be granted that right. Period. Any official whose actions oppose this goal should be considered a traitor to this country’s founding principles, and labeled as such by our Fourth Estate.

***

Mature democracies don’t have their leaders appointed by judges. They choose them in fair and open elections. That one party no longer abides by this belief should be a cause not just for outrage but despair. How did we get here?

It is my own view that powerful and moneyed forces have aligned themselves to bring us to this point, to obscure the threats that imperil our species, to turn us against each other and against our own interests.

I think here, again, of Gatsby.

Fitzgerald writes: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”

But it’s too easy for us to sit around and blame the Koch brothers and the rest of the corporate boogiemen for the fact that neither of the candidates said a word about global warming.

Ultimately, though, we’re responsible for our own democracy. If we’re not prepared to become active—at the local, state, and national level—if we’re not prepared to assert our own agenda, to change our own lifestyles, if we want simply to feel morally superior to the zealots on the right, to drive our cars and eat our organic salads and seek absolution via Stewart and Colbert, if we choose convenience over genuine political action, we have only ourselves to blame for the dysfunction of our political system.

The forces of money and power don’t go away on their own. You can’t reason with them, or joke them out of existence. Conservative candidates and pundits, supported by corporate interests, have worked diligently over the past 30 years to push our country to the right. And they’ve succeeded because progressives have yet to push back.

In this sense, our work doesn’t end on Wednesday morning. Whether or Obama wins or loses, the 2012 campaign should serve as a wake-up call to those citizens who allowed themselves to believe that hope and change was something they could simply vote for.

That’s not how democracy operates. You have to do the work. If you’re not willing to, there are plenty of other citizens who will.

Onward, together.


Steve Almond is the author of eight books, including Letters from People Who Hate Me. You can order his new collection of stories, "God Bless America," here. More from this author →