In the summer of 2004, I published an article in the New York Press that answered Thomas Frank’s question “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” The Bush-Kerry campaign was heating up, and it was clear to me that the American left was going to make the same mistake it’s been making for 30 years, and will continue making until it faces some unpleasant truths about the rank, farcical psychology that drives American voting habits. Why don’t they vote in their own economic interests? Why don’t voters vote rationally, the way we were taught in grade school civics classes? In a rational world, with rational voters voting in their rational economic interests, Bush—who dragged America into two lost wars before destroying the entire financial system—would’ve been forced to resign before the first primary and exiled to Saudi Arabia; rationally, rational voters would have elected anyone or anything, John Kerry or a coconut crab, over that fuck-up of fuck-ups, George W. Bush.
The answer came to me just I was just finishing my book Going Postal. Researching and writing that book was a real mind-fuck: spending all those isolated months sloshing through Middle American malice. I realized something obvious when I pulled back from all that research and looked at the Kerry-Bush race: malice and spite are as American as baseball and apple pie. But it’s never admitted into our romantic, naïve, sentimental understanding of who Americans really are, and what their lives are really like.
If the left wants to understand American voters, it needs to once and for all stop sentimentalizing them as inherently decent, well-meaning people being duped by a tiny cabal of evil oligarchs—because the awful truth is that they’re mean, spiteful jerks being duped by a tiny cabal of evil oligarchs. The left’s naïve, sentimental, middle-class view of “the people” blinds them to all of the malice and spite that is a major premise of Middle American life. It’s the same middle-class sentimentality that allowed the left to be duped into projecting candidate Obama into the great progressive messiah, despite the fact that Obama’s record offered little evidence besides skin pigment to support that hope. (For the record, I called out the left’s gullible Obamaphilia during the primary campaigns in early 2008—here in Alternet, and here in The eXile.)
Here we are, in 2011—and although 2004 seems like a different world from today, separated by more events than we can make sense of, the left still hasn’t come around to answering that big Kansas mystery about Americans’ farcical voting habits. So the left was left baffled once again when, in 2009, millions of Americans volunteered as foot-soldiers to fight for a second-rate TV personality named Rick Santelli and his rich speculator friends at the Chicago Exchange, who called for a revolution to protect their money from “losers” because Santelli and his speculator buddies didn’t want to “subsidize losers’ mortgages.” Next thing you know, these same losers took to the streets to defend the semi-celebrity Santelli, his rich speculator pals, and the Koch brothers from… losers.
That is, they revolted against themselves.
The whole thing was absurd, of course—when Yasha Levine and I first broke the story in February, 2009 that the Tea Party was an Astroturf campaign funded by the (then little-known) Koch brothers and FreedomWorks, no one was more surprised by it all than we were.
It took a long time for the left to get behind our story, largely because it was just too damn depressing for the left to accept. But by then, the Tea Party story got even more absurd: what began as a tightly-coordinated PR campaign quickly exploded into a genuine mass protest movement. And why not? If Kansas had spent two decades voting against its rational interests in the polling booth, why wouldn’t Kansas take the next logical step and hit the streets for an anti-self-interest revolution?
And they weren’t just revolting against their own rational economic self-interest—they also rebelled against their health and longevity, storming town hall meetings with guns threatening any lawmaker who dared offer them cheaper, better health care of the sort enjoyed in every other First World country, where people live longer healthier lives than we do, at half the cost. Fueled by spite, these protesters proved to the world that Americans would rather die in misery and bankruptcy than live longer healthier lives. Thanks to them, Obama, who was never thrilled about offering us cheaper health care in the first place, made sure that whatever happened, we’d get the very worst health care reform possible, one that left everyone bitter except the health care plutocrats. A victory for the spite-ists, in other words.
Like the Grumpy Old Man character, Americans are miserable and we like it! We love it! Hallelujah!
Just as in 2004, today, in 2011, the left can’t make sense of it all. So the only way they can frame this contemporary American insanity is either by blaming it all on the oligarchs who exploit this latent spite, as if taking the oligarch funding out of the equation would solve it all…or, when getting too close to facing the awful possibility that maybe a lot of Americans are just contemptible jerks in dead-ender lives, the left retreats into the safe, comforting irony of Jon Stewart, where it’s stored away as just another zinger that requires no serious thought, no painful analysis.
Here is my article that tries to get the left to finally face the truth about American voters as they really are—to consider the possibility that maybe a huge bloc of American voters are worse than merely “irrational.” What if there’s not much to like about them at all? Or more importantly, why the hell do we need to like them; why is “likable” even a factor?
* * *
Spite the Vote
BY MARK AMES
New York Press
It came on suddenly and without warning. Fuck the Democrats. Fuck the liberals. I hope Bush wins. I hope Bush steals another election and urinates into everyone’s wounds…
This interior rant lasted for a good five minutes before I snapped out of it. The realization that some pro-Republican sentiment lurks inside of me was enough to make me want to stick my head in the oven. Or throw myself out the window like the possessed priest at the end of The Exorcist.
What inspired this crazed outburst wasn’t any love for Bush. It was an instinctual reaction to a tonal shift I’ve detected among the American left. They’re losing that brave, cornered, hysterical tone that I’ve identified with, a tone that came from years of increasing marginalization combined with a sense that the whole country had gone completely insane.
For the first time in almost 30 years, the left has a chance to occupy the reality vacuum that opened up after the big barbecue in Fallujah. The left can sense that their time may have finally arrived, and they’re prematurely settling into their new role as saviors of the national soul, with their former hysteria already reverting to a smug, nurturing tone. The once-vicious humor, born of desperation and hatred, is again becoming nauseatingly didactic and responsible. This is a disaster. The left seems to be buying into the high school civics teacher’s idiotic lie that “you can’t just be de-structive, you have to be con-structive as well.”
What’s worse is that the new smug tone is being accompanied by high-profile outbursts of fake rage. Yesterday’s genuine fury has been hijacked and reified by painted-up frauds like Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi, who look about as comfortable feigning rage as Rumsfeld looked when he tried to squirt a few tears before Congress over Abu Ghraib.
Some people say that the Democrats are actually getting bolder and more vicious. I don’t buy it. What Gore and Pelosi and the others on their bandwagon are really trying to do is snuff out the real rage before it spreads and threatens their fake opposition. It’s a classic strategy in big politics: Co-opt the opposition, suck the life out of it and dump its dried-out shell on the side of the freeway, where it can never bother you again.
This is America, not Denmark. In this country, tens of millions of people choose to watch FoxNews not simply because Americans are credulous idiots or at the behest of some right-wing corporate cabal, but because average Americans respect viciousness. They are attracted to viciousness for a lot of reasons. In part, it reminds them of their bosses, whom they secretly adore. Americans hate themselves for the way they behave in public, always smiling and nodding their heads with accompanying really?s and uh-huhs to show that they’re listening to the other person, never having the guts to say what they really feel. So they vicariously scream and bully others into submission through right-wing surrogate-brutes. Spending time watching Sean Hannity is enough for your average American white male to feel less cowardly than he really is.
The left won’t accept this awful truth about the American soul, a beast that they believe they can fix “if only the people knew the Truth.”
But what if the Truth is that Americans don’t want to know the Truth? What if Americans consciously choose lies over truth when given the chance–and not even very interesting lies, but rather the blandest, dumbest and meanest lies? What if Americans are not a likeable people? The left’s wires short-circuit when confronted with this terrible possibility; the right, on the other hand, warmly embraces Middle America’s rank soul and exploits it to their full advantage. The Republicans know Americans better than the left. They know that it’s not so much Goering’s famous “bigger lie” that works here, but the dumber and meaner the lie, the more the public wants to hear it repeated.
And this leads to another truth that the left still has trouble understanding: Millions of Americans, particularly white males, don’t vote for what’s in their so-called best interests. Thomas Frank recently attacked this riddle in his new book What’s the Matter with Kansas? but he fails to answer his own question. He can’t, in fact, because his is a flawed premise. Frank, who is at his best when he’s vicious, makes the same old error of falling back on the comforting lie that Middle Americans are actually innocent victims in all this, duped by an evil corporate-political machine that subtly but masterfully manipulates the psychological levers of cultural backlash, implying that if average Americans were left to their own devices, they would somehow make entirely rational, enlightened choices and elect sensible New Deal Democrats every time.
This puts Frank in a logical bind he never quite gets out of. Like all lefties, he is incapable of taking his ruthless analysis beyond a certain point—a point that considers the most obvious question no one has the guts to ask: “What if Americans don’t want to be enlightened? What if they’re a bunch of mean, miserable hicks as hostile to enlightened thinking as they are to the possibility of free, quality health care?”
The reason he can’t go there is simple: the entire left-progressive edifice, built on a Spielbergian caricature of decent honest Americana, collapses once they’re humanized.
The underlying major premise of humanist-leftist ideology assumes that people are intrinsically sympathetic, reasonable and fair, and are only spoiled by nefarious outside influences. But if you allow that tens of millions of Americans are defiantly mean and craven and defiantly ignorant, the humanist-left construct loses its purpose and self-destructs. “Why the fuck should I bother fighting for Middle Americans,” they ask, “if they’re just as loathsome, in their own petty way, as their exploiters, with whom they actively collaborate?”
Rather than grapple with that dilemma, the left pretends it doesn’t exist. The people are good—if only the people were enlightened and freed up to think for themselves, they’d behave differently, better, more earnestly and decently.
This giant flaw in the left-progressive construct, and their refusal to even begin grappling with it, is what keeps the left chasing its tail over the great Kansas mystery, and never getting any closer to answering their question: Why do so many working- and middle-class white males vote against what is obviously their own best interests?
I can tell you why. They do so out of spite. Put your ear to the ground in this country, and you’ll hear the toxic spite churning. It’s partly the result of commercial propaganda and sexual desperation–a desperation far more common than is admitted. If you didn’t know anything about how America’s propaganda worked, you’d think that every citizen here experienced four-dimensional multiple orgasms with beautiful, creative, equally satisfied partners, morning, noon and night. So-called “Reality TV” makes life seem so much more interesting and epic and dramatic than it really is for the overwhelming majority—whose misery and malice only grow worse when they compare their own lonely, boner-killing reality to the “reality” on their TVs. “No wonder my reality has never been filmed—I’m not even real in this culture.” From that follows a nagging fear that others might discover just how unfilmable their reality worlds are–and spite towards anyone whose reality is filmable.
The flat truth however is that despite all of our desperate attempts to convince ourselves otherwise, America is an erogenous no man’s land. Most white males here (at least the straight ones) have either dismal sex lives or no sex lives at all. No sex, no dates worth remembering, no romance worth reliving—even though a majority of Americans experience this barrenness on a daily basis, officially, consciously, it doesn’t exist. As bad as this hurts, the pain is compounded every time you expose yourself to the cultural lies that await you at every turn–that is, every waking hour and during deep REM sleep, when the subliminal messages kick in. This wretchedness leads to a desire for vengeance, to externalize the inner famine–it leads directly to the Republican camp.
Spite-voters also lack the sense that they have a stake in America’s future. That’s another area that separates the spite-bloc’s way of thinking from the progressive-left that wants to help them. There is something proprietary implied in all of the didacticism and concern found in the left’s tone—and they do all have that grating, caring tone, it’s built into the foundations of their whole structure. But consider this: The left struggles to understand why so many non-millionaire Americans vote Republican, and yet they rarely ask themselves why so many millionaires, particularly the most beautiful and privileged millionaires in Manhattan and Los Angeles, vote for the Democrats.
I can answer both. Rich, beautiful, coastal types are liberal precisely because their lives are so wonderful. They want to preserve their lives exactly as they are. If I were a rich movie star, I’d vote for peace and poverty relief. War and domestic insurrection are the greatest threats to their already-perfect lives–why mess with it? This rational fear of the peasantry is frequently misinterpreted as rich guilt, but that’s not the case. They just want to pay off all the have-nots to keep them from storming their manors and impaling them on stakes.
Republican elites don’t set off the spite glands in the same way, and it’s not only because of a sinister right-wing propaganda machine. Take a look at a photo of the late billionaire Sam Walton, a dessicated Calvinist in a baseball cap and business suit, and you’ll see why. If Republican billionaires enjoy their wealth, they sure as hell hide it well. As far as one can tell, Republican billionaires genuinely like working 18-hour days in offices, and attending dreary charity dinners. More importantly, it’s hard for us to imagine that these stuffy gray-haired plutocrats have interesting sex lives—nothing inspires murderous envy more than someone else’s great sex life, which is why a celebrity is so much more viscerally hateful than the richest, meanest plutocrat. These right-wing billionaires’ idea of having fun is a day on the golf green (a game as slow and frustrating as a day in the office) or attending conferences with other sleazy, cheerless Calvinist billionaires. If that’s what all their wealth got them, let ’em have it–so says the spite bloc. This explains why the Republican elite–the only true and all-powerful elite in America today–is not considered an “elitist” class in the spleens of the white male have-nots. Elitism as defined today is a synonym for “happy,” not “rich” or “powerful.” Happiness is the scarcest resource of all, not money. And the happy supply has been cornered by the beautiful, famous and wealthy coastal elite, the ones who never age, and who are just so damned concerned for the have-nots’ well-being. In that sense, you can see how the Republicans were able to successfully manipulate the meaning of “elitism” to suit their needs. They weren’t just selling dogshit to the credulous masses; they were selling pancreatic balm to the needy.
At the other end of the economic spectrum, non-millionaires who vote Republican know all-too-well that the country is not theirs. They are mere wage-slave fodder, so their only hope is to vote for someone who makes the very happiest people’s lives a little less happy. If I’m an obese 40-something white male living in Ohio or Nevada, locked into a permanent struggle with foreclosure, child support payments and diabetes, then I’m going to vote for the guy who delivers a big greasy portion of misery to the Sarandon-Robbins dining room table, then brags about it on FoxNews. Even if it means hurting myself in the process.
This explains the mystery of why Bush still has a chance of winning in November, even though most Americans acknowledge that his presidency is little more than a series of slapstick fuck-ups with apocalyptic consequences. Inspector Clouseau meets the Book of Revelations. Close to half of this country will support Bush simply to spite that part of America that it sees as most threatened by the Iraq debacle. If the empire ends up collapsing into that filthy, sizzling hellhole in the desert, if more terrorists are created to help set off dirty bombs in Manhattan or Los Angeles, our spiteful voter has a real chance of finally achieving some empowerment.
It’s simple mathematics: Bring down the coastal elite and the single 40-something Ohio salesman might actually matter. And if they’re not brought down, at the very least bad right-wing policies make happy coastal elites’ lives a little less perfect, a little less enviable—at least they’re suffering from indigestion and palpitations over the possibility that insane right-wing policies could ruin them at any time. And in a world of so little possibility and so much petty malice, that’s better than nothing.
This is why all the talk about “personal interests” is a sham, a delusion that the left needs to get over. Spite voters don’t care solely about their own rational economic interests, nor are they bothered by how “the left talks as if they know what everyone’s best interests are,” an argument you often hear from the whiney right. What bothers the Spite-ists is that the left really does know what’s in their interests. If you’re miserable, you don’t want to be told what’s best for you by someone who’s correct–it’s sort of like being occupied by a foreign army with good intentions. You’d rather fuck things up on your own, something you’re quite good at, and bring others down with you—than live with the shame of having been helped by someone more decent and talented than you.
Spite voting is mostly a white male phenomenon, which is why a majority of white males vote Republican. It comes from a toxic mix of thwarted expectations, cowardice, shame, and a particular strain of anomie that is unique to the white American male experience.
Spite voting is not just an American problem; it’s a flaw in democracies everywhere. When I lived in Kosovo in the late summer of 2000, I asked my Serb friends there if they thought Milosevic was going to win the upcoming Serbian presidential elections. Most were pessimistic. They told me of friends, young people even, who voted for Milosevic “just out of spite.” The Serbian spite voters believed that if the opposition got their way and Serbia became as tame and civilized as Luxembourg, all those college-educated Otpor protestors and pro-Western intellectuals would simply take the privileges enjoyed by Milosevic’s cronies for themselves. They didn’t want caste-based happiness and its accompanying propaganda, so they voted for Milosevic precisely because he was wrong, because he was a vote against hope. Under Milosevic, nearly every Serb was fucked equally, and that suited some people, particularly some Serbian males, just fine. But if you’re a failure under two completely different regimes, then the inescapable conclusion would be that it’s your own damn fault. Better to keep the villain in, and the young ambitious go-getters out.
George W. Bush and Milosevic have a lot in common. Before Milosevic, the Serbs were loved by everyone in the West. But as their third-way socialist economy crumbled and they perceived a threat from local Muslim populations, Milosevic pandered to the people’s darkest fears. He dragged them into what we call “wars of choice” and turned the international community against them, to the point where Serbia was the most reviled nation in Europe. He attacked the U.N. and the West as anti-Serb, and kept the country in a permanent state of war and fear and isolation. Like Bush, Milosevic destroyed his little empire almost as quickly as he assumed control of it. It took a decade and massive covert and overt Western efforts to finally get Milosevic out of power and into the dock. For many a spiteful Serb male, those years of decline, hatred and isolation were glorious years indeed.
Sadly, the chances of the international community putting their blue helmets where their whingeing mouths are to overthrow Bush, liberating us from our own bad judgment, are nil to negative-nil.
But all’s not lost. There is still a chance to get the spite-ists vote to defect. Kerry might be the right candidate to blunt some of Bush’s natural spite-support.
One look at Bush and you’ll see why: Bush is the privileged frat-boy/jock asshole that every spiteful male recognizes from his school days. Spiteful males may have supported him in the past, but only because Bush’s cartoonish stupidity gave a daily dose of stomach cramps to the responsible, concerned Americans who voted for Gore. And really, what white male in his spiteful mind could possibly have voted for Al Gore, with that obsequious “Am I pleasing you?” smile he beamed at you? Spiteful white males don’t want to be pleased, for fuck’s sake–they want other people to be dis-pleased.
Kerry, on the other hand, has that long mortician’s face, and a dull, forgetful delivery that puts you to sleep, making it hard for the spiteful voter to work up a hate-sweat just on pure knee-jerk instinct. With Kerry, the spleen just daydreams about other things.
If there were one perfect spite-ist president, it was Richard Nixon. He looked mean, spoke mean and stomped on the hippies who were having too many orgasms, the last real orgasms this country ever witnessed. Kerry shares some of the same repulsive physical qualities as Nixon, repulsive in the sense that he doesn’t look like a tv anchor–which is a good thing. And while Kerry may not stomp on hippies, it’s hard to imagine that he ever enjoyed a single minute of his life. There is nothing about Kerry to make a man envious, even if he is rich and famous. You get the sense that Kerry’s greatest joy in life is sitting alone in his office at the end of a long day, thumbing through his fresh collection of business cards and coveting the connections that each one brings. When it comes to the spite intangibles, Kerry is the closest thing to Nixon that the Democrats have ever fielded.
Kerry won’t draw the spite vote, but his creepy face, along with Bush’s jock glow, just might neutralize it–out of spite. All the left has to do is not stir up the wrong bile. That means keeping the focus on Bush’s corporate-jock clique, and keeping it mean. Just don’t let us know how responsible and concerned you are. Don’t let us know that you care about us, and the election is all yours.
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Addendum, January 20, 2011: Clearly, Kerry didn’t read my piece.
But even if he had, he wouldn’t have known how to save himself. Rove and the Republicans know their spite, and know how to harness that spite and focus it on a target, no matter how inoffensive that target might seem—even if the target was a house plant with hair like John Kerry.
That’s why the Republicans focused on Kerry’s war hero record. Everyone was shocked by this strategy: “Why would the Republicans go after Kerry’s war record when Bush and Cheney were deserters?” The answer was obvious if you understood how spite works. Kerry’s war heroism secretly pissed off untold millions of American males, especially middle-aged white American males, who identified with the cowardice and loud-mouthed hypocrisy of the Republican war deserters, because most white middle-class American males were war deserters too. It’s like the homophobe closet-case phenomenon: most boomers who deserted the Vietnam War resent that stain on their past, so naturally they’re for the rankest, basest draft-dodging hypocrites like Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich, who dignify draft-dodging as machismo, and turn that private stain into a purple heart.
Compare the shame of the average white male American’s Vietnam record to Kerry’s war record: He saw real combat and faced real danger and killed real living people, rather than just yapping about killing in the comments section of Pajamas Media like most white males, or shouting about it on FoxNews with all the draft-dodging warmongers there…Then there’s Kerry’s far braver turn to anti-war activism after he returned home, a defiance that none of these spiteful voters ever had the courage to show in public, for fear of getting yelled at by their bosses. And most offensive of all, Kerry’s cinematic Swift Boat that he rode up the Mekong, clutching his M-16 like some fucking action hero movie star. He lived the life every dead-ender American wishes he had lived, daydreaming about courage in his wretched cubicle.
No shit Kerry’s war record would set off all that envy and malice among middle-aged white Americans—and draw them closer to the side of the shameless war deserters– the side with Bush, Cheney, Limbaugh and the rest of them.
On top of being an action hero, Kerry spoke French. That meant he had sex. And his rich wife spoke foreign languages with ease, whereas most spiteful American males can’t even read a fucking Taco Bell menu.
The final death blow was releasing the photo of Kerry wind-surfing like some happy coastal Californian celebrity…Add all that up, and what you get is the picture of a man who has had an interesting, enviable sex life. The very picture of hate to the millions of Americans stuck in eventless, dreary, unfilmable lives.
Clearly a guy like this could not be allowed into the White House.
The elections in 2006 and 2008 showed that the only way that the “left” (such as it is) can sneak into power is when the right self-destructs and creates a void, setting the spite bloc adrift. That’s what happened in 2006—that and revelations that nearly every single Republican homophobe was a closeted cock-addict. Spite almost made a big comeback in the 2008 elections—people forget this but McCain-Palin pulled ahead over Obama in September 2008, and their lead expanded to 5% points in a New York Times poll by the middle of the month…and then the financial markets collapsed, and the Republican rats melted into the hills, leaving the Spiteists high and dry.
This Gallup graphic captures that sudden absence of malice, or what Gallup calls a lack of “enthusiasm”:
But not for long. All it took to get America’s spite on again was a few weeks of watching a successful, suave black guy who overcame prejudice and a broken home to make it to the top—and that was it: the spite floodgates were unleashed. At least if you’re led by privileged dumbshits like Bush, it means there’s no meritocracy to speak of in this country, and that means it’s not your fault that your life didn’t turn out the way you hoped it would. If you never had a chance in the first place, that at least is some comfort—Obama ruined that excuse, and suggested that we might, after all, live in something like a meritocracy, the scariest thought of all for the spiteists.
That’s where we are now. And it’ll continue to get worse than anyone thought imaginable because only one side is exploiting America’s spite. It’s like the one-sided class war that Warren Buffet spoke about:
“There’s class warfare, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
Another way of saying that could be, “There’s spite and envy all right, but it’s my enviable class, the billionaires, that’s harnessing that spite and using against the left, which doesn’t want to acknowledge how spiteful Americans can be– and that’s why we’re winning.”
But the left should see this as an opportunity. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or even a marketing whiz– to imagine how the left could tap into all that spite, envy, and petty malice. It’s right there in front of all of our faces. We can use spite to reform this wrecked country! After all, the spite we want to arouse is absolutely legit, totally justified and in fact way overdue! Why is the left so wobbly-kneed about bringing up the obvious? It’s about time the American people started to feel the anger and bitterness they should be feeling toward the people who’ve robbed and suckered them all these years!
All we have to do is drive home the obvious to Americans:
There’s a class war going on, like Warren Buffett says, and they’re kicking your asses every time and laughing all the way to the bailed-out bank—just in time for the bank to foreclose on your house! Americans don’t have tea parties, we have bar-b-ques for fuck’s sake, and we drink Coke or beer. “Tea Party”—what’s next, the “Vienna Ball” protest movement? Hundreds of thousands of “Viennaballers” in Mozart costumes hitting the streets demanding hereditary titles for our billionaires? Suck up to them all you want to, they’ll still despise you. They have yachts and airplanes and mansions all over the world and children who will never see a bill or worry about a single thing beyond remembering their servants’ names– and it’s all thanks to robbing you and your family blind. No shit you’re angry! You have every reason to be angry!
Wake up and smell the spite—or choke on it. There’s no other choice. It’s not going away.
Mark Ames is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion from Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine.
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