Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's This piece first appeared on TomDispatch.
By the time you read this, I'll already have voted -- the single most reflexive political act of my life -- in the single most dispiriting election I can remember. As I haven't missed a midterm or presidential election since my first vote in 1968, that says something. Or maybe by the time you've gotten to this, the results of the 2010 midterm elections will be in. In either case, I'll try to explain just why you don't really need those results to know which way the wind is gusting.
First, though, a little electoral history of me. Certainly, my version of election politics started long before I could vote. I remember collecting campaign buttons in the 1950s and also -- for the 1956 presidential campaign in which Dwight Eisenhower (and his vice president, Richard Nixon) faced off against Democratic Party candidate Adlai Stevenson - singing this ditty:
Whistle while you work,
Nixon is a jerk,
Eisenhower has no power,
Stevenson will work!
Even in the world of kids, even then, politics could be gloves-off stuff. Little good my singing did, though: Stevenson was trounced, thus beginning my political education. My father and mother were dyed-in-the-wool Depression Democrats, and my mother was a political caricaturist for the then-liberal (now Murdoch-owned) tabloid, the New York Post.
I still remember the fierce drawings she penned for that paper's front page of red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy. She also came away from those years filled with political fears, reflected in her admonition to me throughout the 1960s:
"It's the whale that spouts that gets caught."
Still, I was sold on the American system. It was a sign of the times that I simply couldn't wait to vote. The first election rally I ever attended, in 1962, was for John F. Kennedy, already president. I remember his face, a postage-stamp-sized blur of pink, glimpsed through a sea of heads and shoulders. Even today, I can feel a remnant of the excitement and hope of that moment. In those years before our government had become "the bureaucracy" in young minds, I was imbued with a powerful sense of civic duty that, I suspect, was commonplace. I daydreamed relentlessly about becoming an American diplomat and so representing my country to the world.
The first presidential campaign I followed with a passion, though, was in 1964, after Kennedy's assassination. In memory, I feel as if I voted in it, though I couldn't have since the voting age was then 21, and I was only 20. Nonetheless, I all but put my X beside the "peace candidate" of that moment,
Lyndon B. Johnson, who had, in such an untimely manner, inherited the Oval Office and a war in Vietnam. What other vote was there, since he was running against a Republican extremist and warmonger, an Arizona senator named Barry Goldwater?
Not long after his inauguration, however, Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing of North Vietnam. It had been planned before the election, but was kept suitably under wraps while Goldwater was being portrayed as a man intent on getting American boys killed in Asia and maybe nuking the planet as well.
Four years later, with half a million U.S. troops in South Vietnam and the war reaching conflagration status, I was "mad as hell and not going to take this any more" -- and that was years before Paddy Chayefsky penned those words for the film Network. I was at least as mad as any present-day Tea Partier and one heck of a lot younger.
By 1968, I had been betrayed by my not-quite-vote for Johnson and learned my lesson -- they were all warmongers -- and so, deeply involved in antiwar activities, I rejected both Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had barely peeped about the war, and his opponent Richard Nixon (that "jerk" of my 1956 ditty) who was promising "peace with honor," but as I understood quite well, preparing to blast any Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Laotian within reach. I voted instead, with some pride, for Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. (Okay, I didn't say this was going to be pretty, did I?)
Nor was it exactly thrilling in 1972 when "tricky Dick," running for reelection, swamped Senator George McGovern, who actually wanted to bring American troops home and end the war, just before the Watergate scandal fully broke. And don't forget the 1980 election in which Jimmy Carter was hung out to dry by the Iran hostage crisis. As I remember it, I voted late and Democratic that Tuesday in November, came home, made a bowl of popcorn, and sat down in front of the TV just in time to watch Carter concede to Ronald Reagan. Don't think I didn't find that dispiriting.
And none of this could, of course, compare to campaign 2000 with its "elected by the Supreme Court" tag or election night 2004, when early exit polls seemed to indicate that Senator John Kerry, himself an admittedly dispiriting figure, might be headed for the White House. My wife and I threw a party that night which started in the highest of spirits, only to end, after a long, dismal night, in the reelection of George W. Bush. On the morning of November 3rd, I swore I had "the election hangover of a lifetime," as I contemplated the way American voters had re-upped for "the rashest presidency in our history (short perhaps of that of Jefferson Davis)."
"They have," I added, "signed on to a disastrous crime of a war in Iraq, and a losing war at that which will only get worse; they have signed on to whatever dangerous schemes these schemers can come up with. They have signed on to their own impoverishment. This is the political version of the volunteer Army. Now, they have to live with it.
Unfortunately, so do we."
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