What the Last Election Means


The recent election in which the Republicans won a lot of seats has some mixed messages, but the one that stands out is that the Republican strategy has worked. Their strategy has been to block almost anything President Barack Obama has tried to do, then blame him for the results. Of course the other part of that strategy has been propaganda: Obama is a socialist, he wasn’t born in this country, he wants to take away your guns, he handled Benghazi and Syria wrong, etc. The unspoken message (and not all THAT unspoken) is that he’s black. To a certain mindset, the one Republicans predominantly appeal to, that means he’s evil. That part of the electorate already believed that Democrats were evil, so the election of a black president was just the final proof of their evil.
The mixed message part of the election was that a lot of progressive initiatives were passed, even in red states. Several conservative states approved raising the minimum wage. Marijuana was legalized or decriminalized. Those are all progressive results (and more or less what Democrats stand for). So why didn’t Democrats win more offices?
Lots of reasons. One is that mid-term elections have usually have low turnouts, and because of demographics, many of the people who most reliably support Democrats are the ones who don’t turn out: younger people and minorities. The people who do turn out are usually older white people, and more of them vote Republican than Democrat. Voter suppression laws also suppressed more Democrats than Republicans.
Another reason is that many people are having hard times, mostly financial hard times, and when they don’t like what’s going on, vote against whoever is in power. This benefits Republicans, even though they’re responsible for a lot of the bad things going on, because the Republicans have more balls than Democrats. Representing the wealthy class, they don’t see anything wrong with taking as much money as they can get from contributors and saying whatever they think will help them win. They’re better at propaganda too.
Democrats are at a disadvantage because they too get most of their political contributions from the wealthy, and are unwilling to say anything that will make the wealthy mad at them. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren prove that speaking against the interests of the wealthy can work, but most Democrats are too scared to follow their example. It’s still the economy, stupid, but Democrats (with few exceptions) didn’t want to talk about that, so they lost, and didn’t get even a moral victory.
I think one difficulty for many voters is understanding the issues. It seems obvious that it’s wealthy people who start businesses and create jobs, but ultimately it’s DEMAND that creates jobs, and when ordinary people don’t get paid enough there’s not enough demand to make it worthwhile for employers to hire. That’s just one of the things Republicans don’t want ordinary Americans to understand. Giving rich people and corporations DOESN’T necessarily create jobs. What does is supporting SMALL businesses, not big ones, and paying workers enough that they can do more than just survive.
What Republicans don’t want you to understand is that their policies gave big corporations the incentive to send jobs overseas that Americans used to work. That means getting well-paying jobs now usually means getting a college degree, and the cost of that has gone up precipitously in my lifetime. Which also means that even when ordinary people GET college degrees, jobs don’t necessarily follow, and even if they do, the former students owe large debts for their education which can take forever to pay off. That means they can’t spend enough to stimulate the economy much. Why does ANYONE want this state of affairs, including Republicans? The answer seems to be, short-term profit.
Short-term profit is fine for those who benefit from it, which are increasingly a minority. Long-term profit would benefit most, if not ALL the people in the country, but that doesn’t seem to be what the wealthy, including large corporations want.
Consider a few of the things that have happened in the last decade or so. Big banks were bailed out in 2008 and after, because they were “too big to fail”. Maybe that was wise, I don’t know. But the people who lost their homes and money WEREN’T bailed out, and ultimately, THEY’RE the ones who make the overall economy succeed or fail.
The president’s predecessor launched two wars, while simultaneously LOWERING taxes. The result of that was our huge national debt, for which Republicans now blame President Obama, who has managed to lower the annual budget deficit by a large amount, but hasn’t proposed a way to reduce the national debt. Neither have Republicans.
Republicans have been telling us for some time they want to cut spending. The spending they want to cut, has been to cut (and if possible, privatize) Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Exactly what most Americans DO NOT want cut. Republican governors have cut funding for public schools, police, and fire fighters too. I think there’s a pretty solid argument that these are services everybody (or almost everybody) needs. The kind of spending Republicans DON’T want to cut is subsidies for big industries (oil, coal, pharmaceutical) and military spending. How do these subsidies benefit most people?
Almost everyone agrees that our country’s infrastructure needs to be rebuilt. Republicans have blocked that, even though it would create many jobs, which would create more jobs in turn, and benefit us all economically. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it seems their reason is because if it succeeded, President Obama would get the credit.
Republicans have made a big fuss about the Benghazi incident, in which an American ambassador was killed. What they fail to say is that they insisted on cutting the security budget to embassies around the world. So ultimately, they have as much responsibility for what went wrong at Benghazi as anyone. They invite everyone to blame the president, though, and many have.
Immigration is another issue that has many panicked. What few people seem to realize is that several US policies are responsible for a lot of it. NAFTA undercut Mexican agriculture. What are Mexican farmers who can no longer make a living supposed to do? Many of them come to this country (often illegally) to start over.
The War on Drugs has created a lot of drug gangs in various parts of Latin America to obtain the drugs and smuggle them, and there’s enough demand to make these gangs rich and powerful. Some seem to be in the process of taking over governments (if they haven’t already). Those countries are generally poor, corrupt, and violent. Can YOU imagine sending your underage child ALONE to travel a thousand miles (more or less) on the (not very good) chance that they’ll be accepted into a wealthy country more stable than your own where they might have the possibility of building a decent life? What kind of circumstances would prompt YOU to do that?
The arrival of these immigrant children has been met with hysteria (encouraged by the Republican party, which has also blocked meaningful immigration reform). People believe poor immigrants will take American jobs, for one thing. Actually, poor immigrants have been doing work ordinary Americans didn’t want to do for a long time, and their arrival has usually been economically beneficial to the country. People also imagine them to be terrorists, conflating them with radical Muslim groups who don’t like the USA. They also imagine them to be carrying the Ebola virus (mostly confined to western Africa) or other illnesses, for which there is little if any evidence.
The other thing many Americans don’t realize is that US foreign policy has been intervening in the Latin American world for a long time, more often AGAINST democracy than for it. Would you support any other country intervening in OUR nation that way? All those things have influenced the rise in people trying to immigrate to this country. If we were to let our neighbors run their own countries in their own way without intervening in favor of our business interests, the citizens of those countries just might prefer to stay home.
Republicans have been using terror to influence Americans, and that has worked pretty well for them. American voters tend to be impatient, to have poor memories, and not to know a lot of history, let alone economics. And I don’t want to even get started on how they use religion to manipulate.
One of the other reasons the election went as it did was because most of the seats up for election were in red states. That won’t be the case two years from now. Republicans now have the opportunity to make things better for ALL Americans, and not just their wealthy constituents. I hope they take it, but I don’t think they will. I think they’ll continue doing what they’ve been doing, calling for tax breaks for the wealthy, trying to sabotage any initiative that will help the environment, suppressing poor and minority voters (probably another factor in their recent success), and blocking any initiatives that WILL help most Americans. If they do that, I don’t think they’ll be very successful in the election two years from now.
But Democrats need to be more aggressive too. If they want to succeed, they need to learn from the examples of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They also need to use some of the Republican tactics against them: block any attempts to roll back healthcare or Social Security, and expand those programs instead. Emphasize they’ve done things (like healthcare) that benefit a LOT of Americans, and will do more if they get enough support. If Republicans try to do the things they’ve been doing lately, use the filibuster against them. Change the system so Democrats don’t HAVE to depend on big money to get elected. In short, really ATTACK the Republican agenda. I think that’s an agenda most Americans don’t want, and will vote against if they get the chance, and understand the issues. Democrats need to make sure they DO understand the issues.


“The Girl Who Stopped Swimming”


I happened to pick up Joshilyn Johnson’s The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, and was impressed with the author’s skill. It’s a mystery about how a girl happened to be found lying face down in a suburban swimming pool, and like any good mystery, illuminates a number of other things too.
The girl is a friend of the main character’s daughter, and her death seems to be an accident, but the mother (the primary character) feels there’s something wrong, because the girl’s ghost came to her as she lay between sleeping and waking.
A lot of things turn out to be involved, and one of the main things is class. The woman is happily married to a nerdy man working with computers, but they don’t communicate a lot, except sexually. Her mother had grown up in a poor and bad area, but escaped because of the man who fell in love with her. The mother has always tried very hard to put her past behind her and not see anything that would remind her of it. The main character, Laurel, is more or less like her mother in that, while her sister, Thalia, has always rebelled against it.
Laurel is more or less the perfect suburban wife. Thalia (fittingly enough, considering her name), is an actress who lives unconventionally, and who believes that her sister’s marriage isn’t happy. Laurel also has a hard time believing Thalia’s marriage (she’s married to a gay man, and has affairs) is happy. Each is both right and wrong.
After their mother escaped from her background, she went back regularly at Christmas as a benefactor (but not as a member of that community), bringing presents to the children, among other things. Laurel wants to steal children from there, to bring them up more happily. She won’t do it literally, but she continues her mother’s tradition. So when the neighbor girl dies in the pool, there’s a distantly related girl from DeLop (the nasty place) staying with them.
Laurel’s family has some other secrets too. One is her uncle Marty, “accidentally” shot on a hunting trip. Marty was a child molester–he may never have actually molested a child, but it was pretty common knowledge that his taste ran that way. Laurel has seen his ghost too, but never since getting married and moving to the community she lives in now.
She and Thalia have had a breakup, not seeing each other for two years, but after the drowning, still feeling things aren’t right, even after the police have declared the death an accident, she decides to bring her sister to stay with them and help her find out what they are. This is a somewhat daring move, as her sister and husband don’t like each other.
We learn more as the story goes on, and it’s a story that could be profound. The one problem with it, for me, is the writer is SO skillful that the story comes off slick, with the profundity obscured.
What do we learn? Laurel’s sister is her protector, but so is her husband. Their uncle Marty had made a remark on the hunting trip indicating he was attracted to Laurel, and Thalia had shot him without thinking about it. She’d gotten away with that, and apparently didn’t lose much sleep over it. When she comes back to stay with her sister she suspects Laurel’s husband of having an affair, or getting ready to, because they both see him talking animatedly with a co-worker who’s an attractive young woman. Between that and other things, Laurel gets drunk, flips out, and destroys a lot of dishes, before sleeping it off. When she wakes up her husband is with her, and she’s determined she has to tell him about life in DeLop, which she’s kept in a separate compartment. Her husband tells her that he was animated with the young woman because she was speaking his tech language, which always excites him, but though he noticed she was pretty, he hadn’t been tempted.
He and Laurel had gotten together just as acquaintances first–he had hung around with her and her girlfriends, never really being part of the group. He tells her now that he had been there because of her, that when she was there she always lit up the room for him. They had happened into sex when he found her crying, it had been really good sex, and she had gotten pregnant, so he had quit school, married her, and started working very profitably for a tech company. She had always wondered in the back of her mind if he was there only because he’d gotten her pregnant. Now she’s reassured.
The “villain” in the drowning turns out to be the girl from DeLop, Bet, who really loves living with Laurel and her family. She visits them, but they’ve never really made a place for her, and she wants a place with them. She had seen the girl fall off the diving board, hit her head, and drown, and had done nothing. Laurel decides it’s because Bet thought the girl was her daughter, and felt that losing her would open a space Bet could fit into. She can’t afford to have the truth found out. She takes Laurel’s daughter to DeLop, deciding to kill her so no one will know. Then maybe she can have her dream.
This follows the narrative that poor people are jealous of rich people. Of course there’s some truth to that, but what conclusion one comes to depends on interpretation. Of course many people would like more money than they have, but it doesn’t always follow that people with less care that much–unless they’re being actively oppressed. Those who insist that people are poor because they’re lazy, and prefer to live on welfare (and for no other reason), are ideologues with bad consciences.
Some poor people are lazy. So are some rich people. Some poor people abuse alcohol and drugs. So do some rich people. Some poor people don’t have very good sexual behavior. Neither do some rich people. The big difference is that being rich allows you more margin for error. Being poor means financial catastrophe is all around you, and may easily engulf you, even if you make all the right choices. Those kinds of generalizations on the basis of class are foolish. The only generalizations you can make about any large group of people, I think, is that some are probably very good, some very bad, and most somewhere in the middle.
Bet is clearly a character who wants a better life, and doesn’t know how to go about getting one, being only in her early teens. She makes an unfortunate choice, possibly not even knowing any better, and eventually dies because of it. Probably few readers will identify with her. Probably not many readers with her kind of background will read this book.
Yes, there is a happy ending to the novel. Laurel and her husband move out of the suburb. Laurel is again pregnant, and sure it will be a son this time. She and her sister are spending more time in DeLop, trying to benefit people there in a better way, which isn’t entirely made clear. Her sister and husband may still not much like each other, but have reached an accomodation.
On the other hand, Bet is dead. The end of the novel suggests she’s happier that way. But her character represents the truly sad part of this book. She had fewer chances in life than the other characters, at least in the financial sense, and was too young to know what to do with what chances she did have. She made a bad choice, one she might not have made had she been older, or lived in a different part of society. The book doesn’t portray her as evil, and I don’t think she is. No more so than the other, more fortunate characters.
But she represents a large part of America that gets stigmatized for political profit. That’s the time-bomb in this novel for anyone willing to take the time to think about how politicians encourage us not to care about anyone different from us, anyone we don’t like, or anyone that scares us. Bet isn’t portrayed as evil, but we’re not encouraged to care about her either. She’s not as important (despite her disastrously bad choice) as anyone else here. Whether the writer could or should have approached this differently, I don’t know, but the ending makes the novel feel less than it could have been.