Back in those now nearly-forgotten halcyon days of late September (the American public has the memory of a goldfish: "Oh, look, a plastic diver! Oh, look, a plastic diver! Oh, look, a plastic diver!"), when President Obama looked as if he'd not only foreclosed the election but was planning to tear it down to build a bigger election, Matt Taibbi wrote a brilliant piece pointing out that, far from Obama's lead being shocking, the race should never have been even as close as it was then -- much less the virtual dead heat that it has become. How did it come to pass that Mittward Romney, whose only concrete statements about the economy and foreign affairs make less sense than a Lindsay Lohan traffic stop, should have a decent shot at replacing a president who has done a reasonable job of bringing the economy back from the brink of utter devastation, has ended one inherited quagmire of a war and is winding down another, and has pushed through a workable if not completely adequate healthcare initiative? Are we Americans a bunch of morons?
Well, yes. (Proof: Honey Boo Boo. Both check and mate.) But also, as Taibbi points out, the Democrats are very, very bad at politics, though better at fundraising than we give them credit for. Given that the GOP represents the people who crashed the economy into a wall in 2008, demanded relief from the government, then gave themselves ginormous bonuses while blaming the crash on poor and middle-class home-borrowers (AKA voters), and given too that Mittward Romney resembles nothing so much as the animatronic version of one of those self-righteous self-pitying douchebags, positioning themselves as "The Party Of Anyone Who Isn't A Douchebag" would have wrapped this election up in a box for the Democrats. Taibbi sees a 99 percent to 1 percent blowout if the Dems were to go full-on Occupy and give up the money-teat that Wall Street offers them, if they came out among other things for effective banking regulation and against special tax treatment for "capital gains" and "carried interest." Incidentally, someone recently commented to me -- condescendingly, as they do -- that "investments are risky," and that's why capital gains and carried interest get special treatment. Oh, really? Investments are risky? And being a cop or firefighter or inner-city teacher -- or soldier -- presents no risks at all? Working at a company that might get taken over by oh let's say a company whose name rhymes (kind of) with Shame Capital represents complete security? Capital gains get taxed at a lower rate because rich people make capital gains, and rich people buy politicians as an investment -- and a lucrative one too -- so that capital gains never get taxed at the same rate as "ordinary income." If I were rich, I'd build a special congressperson-cellar, where I could keep all my purchased representatives away from light and heat, so they wouldn't spoil.
Taibbi also blames the media for investing in a horse-race narrative. Close races make better stories, and that's good for the media business, which Jah knows could use something good. As this race tightens, more people pay attention to the incessant stories about polls, about who won the debates, about why women support Obama over Romney. (Umm... because he's better on every single issue that affects women, and doesn't spout bullshit "statistics" like, "583,000 women lost their jobs during the Obama Administration"? Can't fill a column in the Times with that.) Who could blame the media for wanting to squeeze every last drop of nourishment from this last rotting apple? The next election might not capture our attention in the same way; we'd better gin up a little tension, lest everyone turn to Dancing With a Bear. (My new reality show: it's bearrific! And only a few of the contestants remain in comas.) Entertain us! Or expect to cover the next election as a burger-flipper in the Hardee's off I-65.
While I think all these factors have contributed to the tightness of the race, there's another reason, more important than all the rest of these combined, for Romney's inexplicable competitiveness in this race, one that Thomas Frank called out in What's the Matter With Kansas? The rich have long known that, outnumbered, they couldn't keep their privileges, their low taxes, their yachts and their diamond iPods filled with Vampire Weekend songs, without linking those privileges to social issues that incite passion and rage, which might otherwise be turned against economic injustice and its beneficiaries. Raising taxes? Why, that means you'll have to gay-marry an immigrant! They fan the flames on gay marriage, on abortion and of course, on the king of all social issues, the one that, if there is an American tragedy, defines our tragic flaw: racism. For some time conservatives have tried to deny that in ways both large and small, overt and covert, smooth and chunky, they have tried to lash the white electorate into a frenzy of racism that paints the president as Other, in league with terrorists, illegal immigrants and those lazy welfare recipients (you know, the ones who in Mittward's trollish race-baiting words the day after the NAACP booed him "want free stuff", and who are, in right-wing minds if not in the statistics, overwhelmingly African-American). Plus, Obama had that socialist anticolonial Kenyan father whom he knew for one! whole! month! and who in that month formed Obama's entire worldview -- and who was black, you know. (And also? Was black.) The one characteristic that all these groups, Obama's father and Obama himself share that they do not share with the generally poor and middle-class Tea Partiers: a skin color that is neither beige, ivory nor ecru.
(I understand that as a straight male I should not know those colors, but I just shopped for sheets on LLbean.com. Unlike the Tea Partiers, I use them on my bed.)
Apart from conservatives pushing a storyline, can anyone deny that the Tea Party's agrammatical and misspelled placards tend to racial slurs, racial paranoia and then a little more racial slurring? (A double-dip of hate-filled rhetoric: it's not sanitary, but somehow that can't make it any less appetizing.) The degree of hysteria that Obama's race creates in the most extreme members of the GOP mobilizes the large number of white voters who drink from our country's poisoned well of race relations and swear that untainted water kills. When did the right wing last lose its collective shit so completely and histrionically? Why, that would be in the '90s, during the presidency of one William Jefferson Clinton, whom Toni Morrison famously called "our first black president." Now that we have an actual black president, the pitch of hysteria has risen to levels only dogs can hear -- and Romney and the Koch brothers hold the dog whistle. "Take back our country"? From whom, pray tell, not necessarily in that order?
I don't mean to say that Mitt Romney or even Bill O'Reilly or Ann Coulter are themselves racists, other than the country-club type who do not associate with people different from them, even when I send them personal invitations to my neighborhood's annual squirrel-shoots. (Because them's good eatin'.) Rather, they have harnessed the racism that seethes -- unmentioned -- beneath the surface of our supposedly post-racial society. They have tied that racism to exonerating our corporate rulers from guilt in the collapse of our economy. They have tied that screeching fear of the Other to deregulation that lets banks and oil companies run wild and leaves the rest of us to pick up the check for trashed economies and poisoned water tables, while we also try to pay the mortgages on our now nearly-valueless homes. And they have tied the fear that They will treat Us the way We have always treated Them to the largest redistribution of wealth upwards, from the poor and middle class to the rich and ultra-rich, since just before the Great Depression. (And that ended well as far as I know, because my school didn't have enough money to buy history books that went past 1928.) If Mitt Romney wins this election, we the People in our wisdom will have validated that strategy, and demonstrated that we are nothing but our worst instincts, our fears and our rage, and that we deserve every horror a plutocracy will visit upon us.