03 September 2004
In Manhattan this week, a group calling themselves Billionaires for Bush has been protesting in top hat and tails. I first saw them outside Madison Square Garden - where the Republican National Convention was meeting - as the first President Bush arrived. They toasted him with champagne and chanted "No Justice? No Problem!" One of them yelled, "Huzzah to Bush for lining our pockets with the sweat of the American worker!" Like all good satire, it works because it is dangerously close to the truth. It's not hard to see why America's billionaires love Bush. Two thirds of his massive $350bn programme of tax cuts has gone to the richest 10 per cent of Americans.
But even in America, the rich are a minority. So as I wandered through the platoons of Republican delegates stomping around New York this week, I kept asking myself: why do so many poor and middle-income Americans support a party that has done nothing but spit on them for four long years? The poorest county in the United States (MacPherson County, Nebraska) voted for Bush in 2000 by more than 80 per cent. That wasn't a fluke result.
The most rabid delegates I've met here are not the preppy Republican college kids or the tanned, corpulent middle-aged couples. No, the most enthusiastic Bushies are poor people from poor states, some of them visiting New York for the first time. I sat next to a sweet, neat woman in the convention hall called Lily. She works for the minimum wage in an Oklahoma Wal-Mart. If she voted according to class issues, she'd be a solid left-winger - yet she howled in quasi-sexual ecstasy throughout Dick Cheney's speech, punching the air at every mention of the very liberals who might redistribute wealth in her direction.
How did this happen? The mutation in American politics that helps to explain it can be traced to the 1950s, and the corporate buy-out of US democracy. Since both parties now served the richest Americans, their economic policies became startlingly similar, but rather than admit this, politicians changed the debate to the areas where they still disagreed - social issues like abortion, gay rights, and religion.
Only now - with the smirking face of George Bush - has this process finally become complete. Bush is dismantling the few social programmes in the US that help the poor, but he talks up his agreement with the hyper-patriotism, homophobia, evangelism and opposition to abortion prevalent among poor Americans. That's how he passes as a "regular guy" - unlike the pro-gay, pro-choice, quiet-about-religion John Kerry. Since Kerry has no alternative class agenda, of course the American poor opt for the guy who at least agrees with them on something.
I tried to talk to Lily about these issues and she looked at me as if I was a Martian. "Oh no, that's communism, honey," she said about even the most moderate social democratic policies.
In the US, the twin opiates of religion and nationalism have become more successful than any Marxist sociologist could have ever imagined. Lily's gaze has been distracted by a colourful flag and a cross, while the welfare state designed to protect her has been trashed and the already-rich have been handed the proceeds.
It takes a lot to make me feel sympathy for evangelicals, but the way they have been taken for a ride by the Republican Party almost does it. The likes of Cheney - and before him, Reagan - are happy to use divisive social issues as bait to lure in the poor (who form the vast bulk of the evangelical movement) at election time. The Bush posse aren't going to do any of the things Lily wants. They won't criminalise abortion and homosexuality or start censoring "the tide of atheism and porn" coming from Hollywood; they have chosen these issues precisely because they are politically impossible. They guarantee a handy source of pro-Republican evangelical rage until kingdom come.
As the 2000 election approached, it seemed that the evangelicals might be waking up to this political con. They were gradually seeing through patrician Republicans like Bush senior. The two wings of Republicanism - corporate lackeydom and social conservatism - looked less and less compatible. Then George W Bush came along. He was the perfect choice to keep the Republican coalition together, because he is a rare combination of hick theology and absolute obedience to corporate interests. The evangelicals can focus on his born-again narrative while the corporations pocket the receipts.
In the age of Dubya, anybody who tries to explain this dark tale is denounced as trying to "provoke class warfare" and "divide Americans". It's a clever corporate trick: fight a militant class war on behalf of the rich, and then silence your critics by changing the subject and accusing them of being the ones obsessed with class. The last time I saw the Billionaires for Bush, they were playing croquet in Central Park. I asked what they thought about social issues. "Oh, vote for Bush, and he'll be very angry about gays and abortion and what-not. But he won't have time to do much about it: he'll be too busy giving tax cuts for us! All together now - hip-hip, hooray!"
When will women like Lily - travelling back to her $7-an-hour job as you read this - realise they've been had?