The upcoming presidential election is important for many reasons: The future course of American foreign policy, Supreme Court appointments, changes in US energy policy, continued – if slow – social change in the progressive direction, and others. However, it is especially important because it promises to be the first “hinge election” since 1980. As it happens, the 2000 election turned out to be a hinge election as well, but that became apparent only after the election, as indicated by the fact that many voters bought into Ralph Nader’s ridiculous assertion of “no essential difference” between Bush and Gore. For the first time since 1980, an American presidential election is pitting not just two candidates against each other, but two distinct worldviews. On the one hand is Willard “Mitt” Romney, with his glib pitch about the inherent virtues of the free market and his bevy of crypto-neocon foreign policy advisors. On the other is a somewhat chastened but still feisty President trying to hold on to the remnants of his hopeful message to the middle class. It is, indeed, a battle for hearts and minds.
Since the election of 1980, there has been an extremely successful effort to convince the American middle class of the virtue of the free market and the evil of “big government”. The process has worked, in part, because it is based on a kernel of truth, but largely because of an organized effort by those who benefited most from this world-view, i.e., big business. The American government, as currently constituted, is simply an extremely efficient mechanism for transferring as much taxpayer wealth as possible into corporate coffers — in the name of national security, health insurance, education, gun rights, mobility, home-ownership, preservation of traditional values, promises of future wealth, leisure and pleasure, etc. That the system still provides a modicum of justice, a degree of financial safety and a measure of prosperity is incidental, and these things continue mainly because the art of removing the people from the electoral process is still far from perfect. One reason why the election of 2012 is so important is that it provides an in-field test of how advanced this art is.
It is ironic that this test should occur in this election where both candidates are, arguably, pro-market. But Obama has clearly not been sufficiently submissive to the demands of big business – especially financial business (is there any other kind?) – and is going to draw a major effort in opposition to him. Romney, on the other hand, is a simulacrum of the quintessential huckster who can, with suitable programming, deliver every trope generated by the collective wisdom of the corporate collective. Among other this, this has allowed (some would say forced) Obama to discover his inner populist, setting up the clash between two very different views of America and the world.
Many progessives have been apprehensive that, in a post Citizens United world, cash from corporations and wealthy individuals would take complete control of the message. Half of this fear has been realized, insofar as a few big super PACs have been able to keep the otherwise terminal Gingrich and Santorum candidacies alive, and money has provided most of the “strength” shown by Romney through the primary process. However, it has also become clear that this success comes with a debilitating cost in terms of personal favorability, so oodles of corporate cash may ultimately prove to be just as toxic to its beneficiary as it is to its target.
One reason Romney has had so much trouble is, of course, his tendency to make, on average three to four gaffes a week. When he is taking a break from this exercise, the responsibility is apparently transferred to his “more popular” half, Ann Romney, who, faced with the criticism that Mitt Romney is “too stiff”, in then able to say things like , “I guess we better unzip him and let the real Mitt Romney out because he is not!” One wonders how the Romney lineage grows at all!
The White House strategy – brilliant and effective – is to turn Romney into a figure of derision in the popular culture before the election, and that process is now quite well-advanced thanks to Messrs. Stewart, Colbert, Letterman, O’Brein, Kimmel, et al. President Obama himself added a new dimension to this with his invocation of Mitt Romney’s “marvelous” comments, and with his lashing of Romney to the sinking ship S.S. Paul Ryan. The stage is now set for a battle between raw money and pop culture. May the best product sell!