You recall the famous campaign quip, "It's the economy, stupid." That may be true, but suppose we ask why it's true. We're not talking Economics 101 here, or the truism that in hard times you vote your pocketbook. More interesting is the cruelty that leaks into the air during election campaigns like a colorless, flavorless gas, intoxicating or poisonous—or both.
Campaigns are obviously cruel when one candidate spends millions trashing the other. As in boxing, that's a euphemistic form of gladiatorial fight to the death. For losers, character assassination is painful, while for the symbolic killers, it offers the glee of survival and superiority without awkward bloodstains and guilt.
Less obvious is the cruelty when a candidate trashes unnamed "takers" who are draining "our" vitality like vampires. The speaker praises belt-tightening austerity. But talk of cutting food stamps or health care never acknowledges that some particular real person will suffer. In fact the speech is a ceremonial attack on invisible victims. The conflict seems to play out between abstract nouns: "stimulus" in the blue trunks versus "austerity' in red, say, or "entitlements" versus "self-reliance." Most election speeches convey not information but an incendiary cocktail of half-truths.
Dissociation makes it easier to be gung-ho or angry about the attack than to empathize with the invisible souls it would torment.
True, campaigns routinely present a victim who illustrates a policy choice: "a woman in Akron who told me last week that . . . ," or a homeowner stripped of house and job. But everybody knows that these are textbook examples, and discounts the emotional impact. Since elections are advertising contests, the victim's appearance functions as a customer testimonial, with an unspoken disclaimer that this is a professional actor.
More often, the politician fingers a scapegoat such as President Reagan's fantasy "Cadillac welfare queen," with its sly racial allusion, or "takers," who are robbing the candidate, you, me, and "our grandchildren," who will have to pay the crushing debt created by the undeserving, greedy poor. Sometimes the self-pity is deflected onto your social class, like the whining billionaire hedge-fund managers quoted in a recent New Yorker , who imagine themselves persecuted by a president vicious as "Hitler."
No Cadillac welfare phantom experiences real hunger or anguish at being unable to provide for her children. None cringes with humiliation or lies awake at night fearing social death. No medical patient is healed by killing a government health insurance plan.
Like judges, who can treat law as a transcendent abstraction beyond their personal prejudices and responsibility, many leaders and followers appeal to irresistible "principles" or ideology to keep their own motives masked . Like the smoked glass windows of a limo, celebrity rhetoric can be glamorous and genteel while hiding the creaturely motives within.
Since WW2, the world economy has been rebalancing and the US can no longer be the automatic top dog. For Americans, the question is not whether living standards will have to adjust, but who will bear the cost, and how fair will the process be. Hence the cruelty when proponents of austerity demand cuts in food stamps and retirement benefits but never balk at bank bailouts or history's most bloated "defense" budgets. "Keynesian militarism" is a devious form of stimulus program, but instead of putting your neighbor back to work, it pumps up the corporate military and the Pentagon's sacred cows. Meanwhile, as the disgusting campaign to legitimize torture illustrates, chronic war desensitizes the public. TV comedians can casually joke about waterboarding and nobody hears screams or has to bury the dead.
The tough-minded mask of militarism also fits the executive's "lean and mean" attitude of downsizing, outsourcing, and austerity. This is the mentality that suppresses trade unions and demands performance tests for teachers and students while cutting programs for children in a nation with a scandalous rate of child poverty. Testing won't do much for an invisible kid from an invisible family. Nobody says it, but lurking in these policies is the idea of triage. Save the best, bury the rest.
As labor history shows, lean and mean factory discipline has often masked coercion, which is a major reason that managements have outsourced jobs to countries with compliant workers and pathetic labor laws. At the same time that wages have been kept stagnant in the US, piggybanks at the top are stuffed to epic proportions. But the deepest motive harks back to slavery. The more "hands" the boss has to do his bidding, the more powerful and invincible he feels. As control over other people, money magnifies the self. Individual hands are personally invisible. They may perish, but executive will can replace them and enjoy a conviction of immortality.
Beneath the self-evident selfishness of these masks is a cluster of rarely examined creaturely motives. Like talkshow rant, "tough-minded" austerity can convert flight to fight. With the right attitude, a wave of the magician's handkerchief can disappear living people in trouble. If necessary, it can convert them to scapegoat "enemies" greedy for a handout. By defeating and denying them, the executive self confirms its success and, in the process, converts anxiety into aggressive mastery. Flight becomes fight. The social death of others confirms your superior self-reliance. It tells the world that like a god, without meddling parents or public services, you created yourself. Spreading your arms wide, you invite your followers to bask in the glow of your special powers.
Like the hysteria of US gun culture, these convictions of mastery are grounded in fantasies of survival. They depend on melodramas in which superior weapons and discipline allow you to annihilate cartoon or video-game adversaries. In clumsy real life, as data insists, guns are much more likely to kill your child than an intruder. Likewise, the payoff of campaign cruelty comes in the illusion of personal mastery achieved through the triage, the sacrifice, of unseen, undeserving others. They're diminished, but in our inability to see them and honor their reality, so are we.
2. Well worth reading: John T. Noonan's Persons and Masks of the Law (1976).