Fear and voting in the US
On a Friday morning in early October, the million or so people who regularly watch CNN – who are, for the most part, people with delayed flights crowded around airport monitors – were witness to one of the most extraordinary events in modern news history, when host Ashleigh Banfield presented a whole show with the strapline at the bottom of the screen: Ebola: “The ISIS of biological agents?” That week, Ebola had come to the US, via Dallas, Texas, a state that spurns federal money for its hospitals because it opposes Obamacare, and where authorities had stuffed up the treatment of Ebola sufferer Thomas Eric Duncan, sending him home then walling his family in with his bloodied sheets and towels for a week.
As the grim clown show unfolded day by day, it seemed a too-perfect example of the state of America that the writer Thomas Frank had identified in his book The Wrecking Crew – government fails when it is run by people who work to make it fail. That week, Ebola had seamlessly replaced the Islamic State (more commonly referred to as ISIS in the States) as the source of all fears, despite the fact the stateless terror group had been called an “existential threat” to the US. CNN was merely the neatest packager of a hysteria that arose at the start of the country’s midterm elections, and has dominated them all the way to final polling day on November 4.
Days after CNN’s blockbuster headline, looking for an election fight at the local level, I’d journeyed to Davenport, a small city in Iowa, to hear a debate between two candidates for a congressional seat. It’s one of only 20 or so seats out of 435 across the country that is genuinely competitive, the rest having been shamelessly gerrymandered. The once vibrant now dilapidated riverfront city, with streets of vacant lots and boarded-up shops, was a pretty stark reminder of the real problems facing the US, and the audience at the university auditorium, when asked about their major concerns, mentioned agricultural decline, renewable energy and health insurance.
But the first question from the press panel was, “What would you do about Ebola and ISIS?” Later that day, Republican congressman Darrell Issa would claim, inevitably on Fox News, that the US border protection force had identified 12 Islamic State agents who had crossed the Mexican-American border, and that “prayer mats had been found in the desert there”. The border force denied all such suggestions. Issa’s colleague Rob Johnson wondered if IS agents could infect themselves with Ebola and enter the US. It recalled the Dr. Strangelove refrain about invading our “vital bodily fluids”.
With the US midterms now entering their final days, after further Ebola crises over the forced quarantining of healthcare workers returning from Africa, it’s an open question as to whether such an avalanche of fear would have taken over any election cycle, or whether it rushed in to fill a vacuum. Midterms – the off-cycle election where congress but not the president goes to the polls – are typically low-key affairs, but these have been marked by a degree of cynicism and dissociation from the political process that puts Australia in the shade. Though stakes are high, with the Democrats faced with losing control of the senate, where they currently enjoy a 55–45 majority, both parties have had great difficulty in rousing their base to the polls. Should the Republicans take six or seven senate seats of the 33 up for election, the remainder of President Obama’s term will be open warfare between congress and the White House. Many Democrat incumbents are struggling because of what appears to be a near-fatal lassitude – such as Colorado’s Mark Udall, the ageing scion of a dynastic Democrat family who, on regional TV, stumbled on the most unlikely “gotcha” question, an inquiry as to which are his three favourite books (he froze, unable to name any).
In southern states such as Louisiana and Arkansas, long-time Democrats are being chased out by a base of white voters who have developed a visceral hatred of Barack Obama, even as measures such as Obamacare have improved their lives. In Kentucky, where the Republicans’ senate leader, the chinless fusspot Mitch McConnell, is under threat, his opponent Alison Grimes refused to confirm that she had even voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Not to reveal one’s vote “is wurn of ower freedoms”, she recounted in her gentle Southern voice to audible mirth in the TV studio. But she knew what she was doing. Denial of any connection to Obama was enough to give potential angry white voters a psychological fig leaf, allowing them to vote for her without betraying themselves.
Only in Georgia and Kansas are the Democrats giving the Republicans a fight on their own turf, and there is no Democrat in the latter race – only a multimillionaire former Republican, which is as much as the Democrats can hope for in the heartland.
Yet there is no real enthusiasm from the right for their project. The Tea Party, which dominated the 2010 election, has all but collapsed, replaced by small groups such as “The Three Percenters” who chiefly hang “Impeach Obama” signs over highway overpasses. Angry, conspiratorially minded, they are one stage further removed from the process of modern life, hopeless romantics handing out pocket copies of the constitution at street corners.
To the right, however, that has less import now because money has become the real driver of the process. It always was, but in the wake of the Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision, removing all limits on “soft” money, which can be used for attack ads, the onslaught has become visible and unashamed. In close senate-election states, 30-second ads of eye-watering cruelty fill the airwaves. “Andrew Romanoff… just another worthless Washington timeserver with no achievements to his name” was a personal favourite from Colorado.
Both sides are throwing around huge amounts of money, with the cost of this election to top out at $3 billion. The big bucks on the right are coming from fewer than 20 super-rich individuals. The Koch brothers are the most notorious, operating a dozen or so front groups this time round, everything from Americans for Prosperity to Freedom Partners and many more. But there are others, a phalanx of old white men taking advantage of sheer inertia, low turnout, fear, and the failure of the Democrats to project a process of real change in a place whose shuttered cities and dying country towns are testament to a depression that has not yet abated.
From Mark Udall to the hapless Martha Coakley, a Massachusetts Democrat who lost Ted Kennedy’s senate seat to a former male centrefold in 2010, the Democrats select candidates so invested in a system that is rusting to a halt that they are unwilling to attack the Republican-dominated lower house of congress, which has been responsible for many of the failings for which Obama has been blamed. Into that other vacuum, other forces have moved from the left, such as the Socialist Alternative Seattle city councillor Kshama Sawant, a perpetual presence at the head of protest marches, who has pioneered a two-year $15 minimum wage campaign in the rain-whipped, Miller shirt-clad city that has spread across the country and taken the Democrats by surprise. In New York state, Democrat strongholds are being increasingly colonised by the low-key Working Families Party, a union-based group that doesn’t run tickets separate to the Democrats, but picks and chooses which ones they throw their considerable support behind.
And whatever the failings of the Democrat elite, grassroots groups are contesting super-rich megamillions with massive organisational efforts. Thus Georgia, hitherto seen as a safe Republican state, has been put into play by the New Georgia Project, a black–Democrat effort to sign up voters who wouldn’t ordinarily turn out midterm, with rolling rock and gospel concerts and revival-style meet-ups. Theirs and others are expressions of the “freedom from fear” that FDR identified as the base of the American spirit, and perforce of its progressive movement. But fear is a good bet in any election, and all the more so when the narratives of both right and left have collapsed. As you cross a country whose cracking roads and sagging bridges suggest a long and unrewarding slog back to the middle, the thought occurs that fear pullulates when there is a hunger for collective purpose and a want of meaning in the everyday.
As the election draws to a close, it appears that the 2016 presidential elections might be a head-to-head between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, brother of George W. Medical personnel returning from West Africa are being forcibly quarantined in tents in hospital car parks, against medical advice, but with mass public support. Wherever the answer to that may come from, it doesn’t seem that it will be from US mainstream politics.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 1, 2014 as "Fear and voting". Subscribe here.