Not-So "Sobering News"
Two weeks ago the United States Census Bureau reported a sharp rise in both the poor and the medically uninsured in 2003. Last year, we learned, 1.3 million more citizens in the "world's richest nation" were pushed below the federal government's notoriously low poverty level. The ranks of the officially poor hit 36 million or 12.5 percent of the population.
The poverty increase "hit children and women particularly hard," according to a front-page story in the Chicago Tribune. The child poverty rate rose to 17.6 percent and poverty among adult women rose to 12.4 percent.
The number of Americans lacking medical insurance rose by 1.4 million in 2003. At 45 million, that population now comprises 15.6 percent of the population in the U.S. -- "the beacon to the world" -- in the immortal words of U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) -- "of the way life should be."
It was the third straight year that both poverty and the uninsured population rose in "the beacon," the "advanced" world's most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation by far.
Commenting in a page-one Chicago Tribune story, veteran economic correspondent William Neikirk wrote that Thursday's statistics are "sobering news for President Bush just before the Republican National Convention."
That judgment strikes me as either naïve or an exercise in wishful thinking. It rests on two false assumptions, holding that:
1. George W. Bush could care less about the plight of America's expanding number of poor.
2. Bush is being challenged by a true opposition candidate who is willing to challenge him on poverty, social justice, and inequality.
Bush: "Some People Call You The Elite, I Call You My Base"
The absurdity of the first assumption is readily evident in Bush's fiercely regressive policy record, which is richly consistent with his super-privileged background and the following comment (captured in Michael Moore's movie "Fahrenheit 9/11") he made to big money Republicans at a black-tie gathering in 2000: "what an impressive crowd, the haves, and the have mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base." That remark provides some useful context for understanding how and why Bush II has pursued and passed massive tax cuts for the super-rich while opposing an increase in the laughably low ($5.15 an hour) minimum wage and proclaiming the need for shared national "sacrifice" in the "war on terror." The plutocratic tax cuts and the imperial/terrorist war have come at great social and democratic opportunity cost for the many millions at the expanding bottom of "the beacon's" steep socioeconomic pyramid. Relentlessly attacking the social safety net, union rights, and other remaining public protections that have historically tempered some of the worst consequences of capitalism for ordinary working people and the poor, Bush likes to pretend that the solution to poverty is for single-parent mothers to get married and for them and/or their future husbands to become "entrepreneurs" in what he calls "the ownership society."
"I Am Not a Redistribution Democrat"
The wrongness of the second assumption is evident in the all too predictably centrist tone and related weak performance of the aristocratic John F. Kerry campaign. Kerry contradicts his declared commitment to union rights, "good job" creation, and social equity by espousing globalization on the corporate "free trade" model, refusing to advance universal health insurance on readily available models (e.g. Canada), supporting low taxes for business and the rich, and boasting of his support for the cruel elimination of family cash public assistance. He signed the pro-educational-privatization "No Child Left Behind Act" and (8 years ago) -- in what he calls an example of his willingness to take "unpopular positions" -- the vicious welfare "reform" (destruction) bill.
In case there's any doubt as to his core allegiances, Kerry repeatedly announces that he is "not a redistribution Democrat" (Jodi Wilgoren, "Kerry Plans Effort to Show He's a Centrist," New York Times, April 16, 2004). He proudly proclaims that the more equitable division of wealth and income (and thus power) is "not what I'm about."
It sure isn't. According to the Detroit News last spring, "Senator John F. Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry, with assets of about $1 billion, would be among the richest families to ever occupy the White House, eclipsing even President Kennedy and well ahead of many other moneyed chief executives over the last century." (Ralph Vertabedian, "Kerry Wealth Would Eclipse Other Presidents," Detroit News, June 28, 2004)
Marc Alexander of the right-wing website "The Federalist Record" gets it right when he notes that "Kerry was a child of wealth and privilege...[he] grew up hobnobbing with the Massachusetts glitterati, [enjoying] a life of leisure including all the accoutrements -- the best schools, the best vacation homes, the best yachts, etc... Today, he is the wealthiest member of Congress (the 'F' stands for 'Forbes,' after all), but don't expect that to be a central theme in his 'man of the people' campaign." (Mark Alexander, "The Kerry Record," The Federalist Patriot)
"Don't believe the Republicans painting me out as a leftist -- I am a centrist." That (my paraphrase) was Kerry's basic message in a private address he gave to super-affluent New York Democrats "at a $25,000-a-plate breakfast at the '21' Club in Manhattan" last spring. "We've got to reach out," Kerry told the select 100 audience members at this $2.5 million breakfast. "Reach out," that is...to Republicans, hopefully drawn to his "bipartisan credentials as a fiscal conservative" (the New York Times) and to his claim that he can "manage" the "war on terror" "as effectively, or more effectively, if possible" (Kerry's words) than Bush II.
Beneath the flowery rhetoric on behalf of social justice, hard-working Americans, civil rights, "homeland" protection, and sound foreign policy, the critical theme in Kerry's nomination acceptance speech was that George W. Bush doesn't know to run a militaristic empire and maintain social hierarchy and John Kerry does. This was the essential message, nicely framed with an opening military salute -- "this is John Kerry reporting for duty" -- and his "band of" white imperial patrol-boat "brothers" strategically placed on stage. As any campaign insider will tell you, the swiftboat prop is an attempt to emulate John F. Kennedy's PT-109 heroics. In these and other ways, John "Bush Lite" Kerry has made it clear that he is thoroughly committed to the corporate-imperial plutocracy that rules the US and the world.
Kerry is being amply rewarded for this choice with a landslide influx of corporate campaign contributions (see "The Amazing Money Machine: Defying Doomsayers, the Dems -- by Some Measures -- Are Out-Raising the Republicans," Business Week, August 2, 2004, pp. 42-43).
It is a critical mistake to see the Democratic and Republican campaigns as sheer equivalents, devoid of any relevant difference, but Nader is a curse that Kerry richly deserves.
Wanting a New Direction but Not Kerry
The depressing but all too typically centrist nature of the latest Democratic presidential campaign provides some useful context for a story that appeared deeper in Friday's Chicago Tribune. Bush II, the Tribune reported, has moved ahead of Kerry in three of the most pivotal and hotly contested Midwestern "swing" states: (Missouri - bush is up by 2 points), Ohio (Bush by 5), and Wisconsin (bush by 4). The Democrats, it is worth noting, won two of these states (Ohio and Wisconsin) in 2000. More chilling for those who dread (with good reason) a second Bush administration (possibly one with an actual plurality of the popular vote) and more damning still for the Kerry "campaign" is the fact that Kerry "trails Bush even though a majority of voters in all three states said 'the country is not better off because of Bush's policies and needs to move in a new direction.'"
Keeping the Rabble Demobilized
Why doesn't Kerry try to win the election by wooing the allegiances and seeking to energize the disproportionately poor and working-class 50% of the population that typically sits out American elections, choosing instead to target the 10 percent of more relatively affluent "swing voters" across the U.S.? As Mike Albert recently explained, Kerry "largely ignore[s] the massive non voter pool from which he could plausibly garner landslide support" because "arousing [that pool] would threaten his larger agendas" of "maintain[ing] or expand[ing] society's defining gender, cultural, political, and economic hierarchies." (Albert, "Election Hyperbole")
Bush might have more cause for concern if dominant "mainstream" (corporate-state) media not long ago abdicated their responsibility to serve the public by acting as vigilant watchdogs of concentrated wealth and power. And Bush would have further reason for "sobriety" if the American poor voted in anywhere near proportion to their numbers among the populace and to the same extent as the middle and upper classes. As the recent mass demonstrations in New York City show, there is a very considerable portion of the U.S. population that passionately wants to fire Bush and retire his vile agenda. It is clear, however, that Kerry does not represent all that much of a substantive alternative to Bush in either domestic or (even more dramatically) foreign policy. And thanks in part to the Kerry campaign and the not-so "liberal media," boy king George can continue to bank on the electoral demobilization of those who are most victimized by his vicious, reactionary, and regressive policies.
Paul Street is a writer and researcher in Chicago, IL. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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