The crappiest supermarket bread costs two bucks a loaf. A gallon of milk costs four bucks, and heating oil is already 20 cents a gallon higher than it was last year. The cost of housing is through the roof. Medical services are so famously high it doesn’t bear mentioning. The price of everything is going up, but every month the Bush people say that inflation is “contained,” “tamed” and barely moving if you look at the “core” numbers—that is, the inflation number after throwing out the cost of food, fuel, shelter and unessential services such as medical care and education.
This is the situation before the election. You can imagine what next year is going to be like after the election, when the Bush people have nothing to worry about and nothing to do for the next four years but grab everything in sight. The year 2005 promises to be brutal, but cock your ear and you’ll hear a man who has not devised a way of talking about these topics so as to win himself votes.
The man and his party are spooked by the Republicans calling him negative, which may account for him and his running mate tripping about the battleground states sounding vaguely optimistic. Maybe such an approach will get him elected, but this happy-time, non-negative way of adverting to the declining buying power that the majority of people in this country are suffering is so diluted, so dull and so carefully stated that the message cannot get across. It doesn’t arrive with the thud of conviction. Yes, they’re saying (as they ought) that half of the families in this country are on the down escalator to a level of worry and want such as they have never known before.
Maybe it’s beyond John Kerry’s or any other candidate’s power to make people see that they are in an ever-narrowing box. People are chumps in the first place, and their life experience has been that they could borrow their way out of their problems. In a zero-interest, no-down-payment world, even a candidate with the eloquence that John Kerry lacks might not be able to make people believe that life is tightening around them. But Mr. Kerry ends every speech with a promise that he can make it better when people ought to be told that they are hanging on by their fingernails, whether they know it or not.
Although the politicians and allied panderers to the oversized American ego spend their energy telling those who bother to listen that we are the smartest, most gifted, most liberty-loving sons o’ guns that ever hoisted a flag and pledged an allegiance, in truth we are a nation of fatuous jerks with an oversized opinion of our talents and our accomplishments. When you have had it so good for so long, you don’t realize you’re not smart, just lucky.
Not “lucky,” say Americans in response. We are where we are because we work harder than anybody else. No doubt about it: All the figures show that Americans work longer hours than any comparable nation in Europe or Asia. The American work week continues to grow, vacations grow shorter, and the reward that most of us will get is to continue working until we are in our 70’s. The much-discussed Social Security crisis, whatever it may be, will be resolved by raising the retirement age instead of the taxes. The prospect of returning to the 19th century, when only millionaires retired, has brought forth only the most muted of outcries.
The political pitchmen on TV who make their money flattering their viewers rhapsodize about American individuality, entrepreneurial boldness, freedom-loving go-it-aloneness, but a better case can be made that it’s American docility, American credulity and the American willingness for settling for second-best which has made the nation great in modern times. People get their medical-insurance bills doubled, their pensions abolished, their work hours lengthened, and not a boo-hoo. You wonder why Americans nod when they’re told about the joys of free speech, because their most salient characteristic is taking what’s handed to them without a complaint.
The American motto must be: Work long, work hard and work stupid. People brag about the hours they put in. In most circles, the highest compliment you can pay someone is to say that so-and-so has a good work ethic or a blue-collar mentality. Never mind that the person is as dumb as a post: These richly praised and underpaid dopes work their butts off while taking a slight pay cut every month, even as the people on top are being paid 100 or even 200 times as much money for running the company into the ground. Although increasingly incompetent American upper management holds the key to our collective and individual future well-being, nary a grumble can be heard.
It is not the fault of the work-till-you-drop American laborer (of whatever color collar) that we sell less than we buy, that we have been going into debt to foreigners at the rate of a half-trillion dollars a year. The blame for that goes on to the thieving, blundering, ineffectual C.E.O.’s at the helm of so many of our formerly great corporations. But nobody seems to mind overly much, regardless of the unhappiness and busted dreams these business disasters cause employees. Ironically, criticism of the C.E.O. fools who cannot get it right is usually only found in the business press.
When people do get indignant, they lather themselves up over some silly-ass controversy, like telling research scientists which cells they may use and which they may not. When you recollect that half of the American population believes in angels, you can see why the dumb bunnies adjust their smile buttons and trot along when they’re cheated out of their overtime pay. America is literally a fat and happy nation.
Can you imagine it? The public schools open their classrooms and cafeterias to the chain-store purveyors of high-fat, low-health food to make sure that, instead of the kids learning how to read or hold a pencil, they learn addiction to eating the kind of food that turns them into diabetics and heart patients. The parents don’t get worked up over the schools teaching their kids to eat themselves into wheelchairs. No, the indignant few are derided as intellectuals, effeminate men, Eastern-seaboard snobs and collectivists. Good nutrition is a left-wing plot and the idiots buy it.
Turn on the television day or night and there is George Bush explaining that if you cannot afford medical treatment, blame it on John Edwards and the liability lawyers. This statement, needless to say, is snuggled in between dozens of réclames paid for by the drug corporations. The TV news is chockablock with stories of sick people crawling on buses to buy drugs in Canada that they cannot afford to purchase in the United States. That news comes like water falling on granite: It will make no difference, it will cause no one to scratch their head and consider that there might be more to the George Bush story than he’s telling.
It is the fate of the Democratic Party that, all things being equal, it must suffer through election after election in which those it seeks to represent vote for the other fellow or don’t vote at all. If the people for whom the Democrats think they speak would turn up on Election Day and vote for their would-be champions, the Democrats would never be out of office. To some extent, the Democratic politicians are themselves to blame, because they are often lazy and more often crooked; they don’t mean what they say, and they are not good at their work. John Kerry isn’t lazy, and he is not crooked, and if he is not outstanding at his work and is a little pompous, a little boring, a little uninspired, he’s O.K. On Nov. 2, when the millions of lower- and middle-income people don’t show up to vote for him or even for those who so happily exploit them, it will not be fair to blame Mr. Kerry.
As the Republicans are quick to point out, there is a limit to what you can do for other people. At a minimum, a person has an obligation to protect himself and to look after his own basic interests, even when he is being lied to, kidded along and propagandized. If the majority of people in this county can’t tell friend from foe or don’t care enough to act on the difference, well, then the election will come, and let us hope they enjoy what comes after it.