“I see Joe the plumber and Lindy the teacher and Greg, Greg ‘the only Republican in my street’,” Sarah Palin yelled from the podium at some rally last week.

The signs were waving from the crowd, who had made themselves into a whole army of people from the “real” America. In Florida, John McCain himself had been hitting the idea hard earlier, asking a bunch of people who they were — “Jill the Nurse”, “Gary the Carpenter”, and then pointed the mike at an older woman who told him she was “the land developer”, at which point McCain wisely curtailed the routine. Last thing you want is someone from the real America telling you how their sub-prime business has gone to crap and that’s why they’re voting for…

Though the Republican campaign is more or less completely falling apart, ‘Joe the Plumber’ is still the main through-line in both GOP candidates’ speeches, even though the whole thing has been complicated by the fact that Joe’s support for McCain is clearly against his own economic interests. Nothing wrong with that per se, but that has made the incessant brandishing of “Joe” by McCain/Palin a double-ended plunger — to one group of people it suggests a belief in certain values independent of circumstances, while to others, especially core groups of independents, he may appear to be a bit of a dope.

In any case, neither Joe the Plumber nor Lisa the Gift-Shop Owner are truly representative of the largest social groups in the modern US. In old-skool terms, they’re classical petit-bourgeois, with skilled trade or property to take some pride in, a strong sense of abstract values — fair days work etc — attached to patriotism, and a haunting fear that loss or failure, a fall through the floor. Yet of the 150 million people employed in the US, they’re a minority, around 25 million tops. They’re dwarfed by management, service and sales occupations, at around 90 million. These are the lumpenservitariat of the processed world. While the figures include a few people with interesting jobs, for the most part it’s people who, as the saying goes, have their names on their shirt.

The shadow world of American life — which is in fact the real world — is barely represented in the whole panoply of American mass culture. Indeed, the only show I can think of in the last twenty years really set where most people live was the first few series of Roseanne, which depicted her transition from a full-time manufacturing job into the patchwork world of fastfood service, the mall etc.

That Roseanne Barr then completely lost her mind and turned the last series into one in which her family won the lottery and was fantastically wealthy does not invalidate the distinctiveness of the earlier series, which faithfully depicted borderline poverty perpetually lapping at the heels of a family perpetually in danger of fracturing under the pressure.

Indeed, the lottery-win development was some sort of depiction of the fantasy that makes hinterland American life, the world of 24 hour check cashing stores, and emergency room GP treatments, bearable for so many — the lottery ticket forever on the fridge, the build-you-a-home makeover shows, etc etc. Was Joe the Plumber’s belief that the two-man operation he was part of, clearing ninety-five grand a year, would somehow fall under the hammer of Obama’s tax increases on quarter-a-million plus incomes, some sort of false identification between dreams and reality?

Who knows, but, leaving Atlantic City it seemed to me that a more accurate reading could be got from people who spend so much time working with the delusional-by-definition — casino gamblers — that they are inured not to dreams (we’ll be dreaming as we die) but to fantasy, might be a useful corrective?

Atlantic City may not be typical Americana, but the city’s sheer and obsessive focus on fauxstentatious glamour, mug punting, low-rent commercial s-x and street drugs and not much else — there is not a single cinema or proper bookstore in the city limits — its profoundly mishandled renaissance makes it somehow emblematic. Three am at the craps bar last week I had sketched out a chapter list for a book using AC as a focus for every mistake the US has made in transition to post-industrial society, demolishing the old resorts — which had they been preserved would have been hugely popular boutique hotels today — pushing taxes through the floor and killing the city to oblige the casinos, only to have the 1987 Indian Casinos supreme court decision ruined the place’s one selling point, leaving half-filled – an idea so great, so obvious that damn some fugger already did it for OUP in 2006.

Hennyway, the prismatic character of AC is not diminished by that. Take Mike the Bellboy, a figure unlikely to appear at a McCain rally, a man in his fifties, and also in the sort of uniform otherwise not seen except on monkeys chained to accordians.

“I used to work in Youngstown (Ohio) in auto parts,” he said humping my one bag to the room, a service it was made clear was not optional. I’d tipped him first, so he was willing to talk.

“I got an ex-wife, a wife and a girlfriend to support, plus a kid. The wife and kid are back home. AC’s no place for a family. Obama and McCain — look for me they both supported NAFTA. That killed us. But the Dems of course the Democrats. Better or worse. What? This job. I could do with a job that didn’t rely on tips.”

In that bizarre final American service ritual, he showed me how to operate the light switch, flicking it back and forth until I peeled off a couple more ones from the roll in my palm.

“Why should I vote? It’s Jersey. A dead guy would win for the Democrats. And has.” Miles, the croupier, his clip-on bow tie hanging off his white shirt collar, is smoking and eating at the filthiest diner in town, maybe the last place in the US where you can find that once distinctive sight — plates of half-eaten eggs with filter tips stubbed out in them.

I been a croupier all my life. Born in Pleasantville [truly, a place about 10 miles from AC] my parents still live there. I went to casino school near here.

Casino school?

Place above the pharmacy. Big room with a roulette table, craps table, blackjack, you play play play all day take turns being customers. Learn the rules, then learn the types, yknow drunk, clueless novice, card counter. I’m a better actor than I am a croupier. Anyone can be a croupier.

That was self-deprecating. I’d watched Miles run a craps table for three hours and he relied on a pretty fly ability to keep half a dozen different players seperate in your head, as they ceaselessly shift, double and split their bets around depending in the throw of each pair of dice. What’s most striking though is the quasi-industrial nature of the process — the relentless crashing of the dice, the players never pausing, never really at play, in any ludic sense of the notion, the deep green-baize table more like a machine-bed surrounded by workers, the players as much as the croupiers.

“I’ve never voted. I just have zero interest. Man we need a health system though. Know what? I lost a friend in 911. Haddabeen me I would told them Taliban you got three days to hand whoever over and if not …just plane the place. Just flat. You smoke?” Ten hours of watching the random fluctuations of chance, Miles’s head was like a giant craps table, ideas bouncing round like boxcars.

He’s not a Muslim.

He is a Muslim, I saw it on FOX News.

FOX News whadda they know?

They’re fair and balanced!

Jersey being Jersey, getting at least a couple of McCain supporters as a sure bet, seemed to rely on talking to gamblers. Rose and Ted, white-haired in a mix of khaki and plaid costing approximately one nine-billionth of Sarah Palin’s September budget, were roosted on the five dollar roulette table. I was hoping to God they’d been something in haberdashery, but he’d been a health industry employment agent. I was however, spot on in assessing their politics, which was a pure set of GOP talking points — “he wants to spread the wealth” “yah he got money from Ahmadinejad” the only division being that Ted was the moderate, unwilling to believe that he was a secret Weatherman-Arab under deep cover.

“Put it on red.” Rose said.

“I always bet on red hahaha.”

“What will you do if he wins?”

“Tchhh America’s not going to elect a black man,” she said with the air of suggesting the obvious, clattering more chips down with the air of dismissing me.

Predictably enough the only other Republican was a bar hooker at one of the Trump outfits. A survey of the street hookers up Atlantic Avenue had found support for Obama running three to zero, with two abstentions and one f-ck off. A plan to investigate grassroots support among the crack-distribution sector up an alley succumbed to fear and vestigial good sense, but the street of row houses had three “Change We Can Believe In” stickers in windows.

“Ashley” at the Horsehoe bar wasn’t having any of it. “Obama’s going to win course he is darling, but he’ll be a disaster. Hell I own four houses, I was aiming for six before I got out of this. Things keep up I’ll be back to three. You going to buy me another vodkatini?”

“The mistake McCain made,” Ashley said, stirring her outrageouly-priced drink with a toothpick, “was not separating from Mr George W Bush earlier. That was his only chance. I thought he was gone June. Obama and Pelosi and Reid are going to drive us into a new depression. You sure I can’t call your editor personal like?”

But that was it for straight talk express support in the Boardwalk City, unless the shouts of one street person (“Obama Osama they got gin in the ElDorado ha ha ha”) counted as a poetic denunication of talking to our enemies. Bus drivers, wait staff, motel night clerks — those who were willing to talk at all, were all Obama, all for change. They didn’t need to say what that change was, because everyone knows what it is. Those who think these shazam words “hope” and “change” signify nothing — must think these people are idiots. They don’t need to be unpacked because they constitute a program — tax breaks flowing towards low income earners, health insurance that works, education that gives a chance for some mobility, hope that resides somewhere else than in a lottery ticket on the fridge, or everything on 23 red.

What would McCain have had to do to get a slice of these people, the slice he would have needed, not for New Jersey — forget Jersey — but Pennsylvania, Virginia, Nevada etc? He would have had to be the genuine Teddy Roosevelt Republican he claimed to be — effectively, audaciously outflank the Democrats on the left, with a progressive tax deal, direct credits for education and health, all wrapped in the language of ‘busting the trusts’, Wall St etc. Had he stuck with that — he had after all rejected the Bush tax cuts as a Senator — he would have been perfectly placed when the financial crash hit.

Rejecting the bailout and supplying an alternative plan, he would have been free from the taint of the non-recovery that occurred in the bailout’s wake. This strategy would have allowed him to maintain his foreign policy, and social policies on abortion, etc. When it came to it, he really didn’t have the guts to break with the Republican machine and their corporate backers, and strike out for the grassroots support that Obama summoned.

The final crack in McCain’s campaign — the half-hearted joe populism he plumbed — came with the announcement of Sarah Palin’s clothing allowance, and then her twenty thousand dollar makeup artist bill. Increasingly seen as a dill, she now became a symbol of the opposite of what she had hoped to project to independents — the small town mom was dealing in figures that were simply stratospheric, whole year’s wages. The fault may not have been Palin’s, but that simply indicated how out of touch the GOP staffers were.

Atlantic City as you leave it, the buses rolling in and out every fifteen minutes, wears a layer of fatigue, thick as fog. Fatigue of the lapdancers, summoning up a new smile every ten minutes, of the Gap clothing store workers on their twelve hour shift, of the passengers with their return tickets, who will call someone collect from the bus-stop to pick them up. Typical, what’s typical? Joe from Ohio, dreaming of a business he’ll never afford, or the flotsam and jetsam of the Jersey shore, who, if they have nothing else, have a better idea of the odds?

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey