“This town,” says Artie, kid bartender, “this town” — he tortures out the word, Jersey style, to give it a long as yet undocumented vowel, dis toyainn — “‘is what I would call a victim of da recession.”
Stocky, low-slung, in a XXXL faux-college sweatshirt, his face adorned with a neatly picked-out pilgrim beard, a bare line of brown hair around the chin, he looks, as does forty per cent of the young male population of New Jersey, the dead spit of Turtle, from Entourage.
He gives every impression that he imagines himself to be Vince, the blue-eyed romantic lead. When he speaks, he sounds like Ray Romano, the back-of-the-throat voice, mildly helium-inflected. “Oh yeah, dere ain’t no work in dis toyainn.”
I reflect that my tendency to slice him up into half a dozen mass entertainment media effects, suggests I’m not yet fully in country.
Twenty minutes from New York City, but a world unto itself, Jersey is somewhat over-represented in popular culture, from Springsteen to, well, to Jersey Shore, by way of The Sopranos and all points between. People who want to make it go up the road, and either keep on going, or come back to Jersey, to a vast hinterland of wooden row houses, and once-separate towns that have long since flowed into one, without ever building to a city.
Paramus, Elizabeth, Orange, Edison — the names describe a place neither particularly rough, but falling short of the enhanced garden cities that now go by the name of suburbia, cement houses with drives and lawns. People were once glad to make it to a place like Paramus. Then they were glad not to be falling further.
Now they’re being crowded out by New York commuters, driving the property prices through the roof. It’s hard to tell if the financial downturn has hit the place hard; the main street is part boarded up, but so it was three years ago. We’re in a bar next to a long-closed furniture showroom. The place looks alright, but is rendered shabby by the brilliant glow of the HD TV in the corner, the impossibly bright blues and oranges of opposing football team, against mint-green astroturf.
It’s all sport all the time, but the news breaks occasionally to show Obama appearing in Cleveland, Ohio, to rally the troops — joined for the first time this turn around by Michelle, both of them looking for a little rock star glamour. The inevitable question gets the inevitable reply from Artie — “man, I voted for him, but I ain’t seen much different. Especially in Newark.”
Would he vote this time, in his congressional district? He looks at me, strangely.
“Man, I ain’t really political except for that one time. Hey, except for that thing in California man, they’re going to make weed legal! Man I’d vote for that!” he says.
Not that into politics. Dis toyainn was once into politics, a union heartland, and a Democratic stronghold. Despite the victory of a Republican governor in 2008, it’s still all that, but that’s now the problem. Dominated by powerful machines and a fantastic level of corruption – the last half-dozen or so mayors of Camden, a city at the state’s western edge, have all been jailed for corruption. Even more spectacularly, a whole section of the Newark council was arrested, together with a range of accomplices, including a rabbi who specialised in the trade in illegal organ parts.
More importantly, there’s little sense that, two years on, that much has changed, especially as the jobs that a lot of Jersey natives latterly depended on in retail, in anyone of the hundreds of malls dotting the state, disappeared when the chains began to close. I am not that into politics, precisely enunciated. Most likely, Artie was never that much into Obama — he turned back to the football with a ‘you take care now’, something you can say as if leaving, while not actually leaving — but any chance the President had of engaging him appears to be long gone.
It’s less than two years into the Obama era, and three weeks out, the President and his party are facing a massacre, and a massive repudiation of their agenda.
“It’s not just about the work we’ve done, it’s about the work we’ve got left to do.” Obama told those assembled in Massachusetts on Saturday, campaigning in a state which, in any halfway decent year, would already be locked and put away. The President sounded tired, and less than inspiring, but his appeal has never been based in a forceful physical performance.
It’s always been the words and the thoughts, the prophetic voice joining what was, to what was possible, the expansive future to the diminished present. Now however, he had to sell something else, not hope but modesty of aims, not storming the citadel, but manning the ramparts, for a record that has attracted tepid enthusiasm at best.
When Americans go to the polls in a fortnight’s time – save for those third who have already voted — they are very likely to throw out the 39 seat Democrat majority in the House of representatives and replace it with their own, perhaps as large. They are also on track to take a half-dozen Senate seats. Should it all go well for them, they may take ten Senate seats out of the thirty-five on offer, thus denying the Democrats even a simple majority, and effectively ending the Obama presidency as we know it.
The Republicans are triumphal, brimming with energy and fight, the Democrats defensive, tired and perpetually off the mark. The money and volunteers are pouring into conservative coffers, while the Left struggles to motivate the foot soldier activists from union and community movements who made up the bulk of the Obama army in 2008.
The money that flowed in from small donors in 2008, sufficient to allow the Obama team to swamp the hapless John McCain is harder to come by for a series of semi-anonymous Congressional candidates. Meanwhile corporate America has opened the spigot for the counter-revolution, and the Tea Party and half a hundred other intersecting groups have provided the boots on the ground. It’s no contest.
That’s the official story anyway, and so it may prove. There are reasons to doubt that it is unquestionably so, to which I’ll return, but the very fact that such things are possible is a testament to the substantial change in American political life over the last eighteen months. From the triumphant victory celebrations in Chicago to stumping around half a dozen states that should be rock solid is a big comedown. Whatever else historians say about the Obama Presidency, they will marvel at what has happened to him in the sphere of pure politics. But what exactly was that?
You can only start at one point, and that’s the man himself. Every Presidency will reflect the personality of the office holder to some degree, but few presidencies have been so shaped in their best and worst features by the man in the oval office, both by what he can do that few others can, and what he cannot do at all.
In eighteen months, Obama has passed a comprehensive health care bill, of the type that has eluded every democratic president since Harry Truman, halted the plunge to disaster created by the Bush administration, and even managed to reverse direction a little, completed a part withdrawal from Iraq, transformed the Supreme Court towards being representative of American society by gender and race, made college more affordable for millions, shifted tax credit money to working and middle class people, and more besides.
If one can criticise every part of it from the left, one can scarcely deny the scope of its achievement, compared to other great white hopes of American progressivism.
You wouldn’t know that from the press — but you wouldn’t know it from team Obama either. The barnstorming preacher man who demolished Hillary Clinton has been absent these two years – not surprising, since he’d all but vanished as soon as the primary campaign concluded. Replacing him was the professorial type, mellow, quietly superior, a man more like a European leader than an American one.
This other Obama had emerged in the campaign proper, and it’s quite possible that he was only saved by the global financial meltdown, and John McCain’s epic mishandling of such. The professor stayed, and the preacher never returned, even when it became clear that the inevitable compromises required to pass some of the headline bills would need to be sold back to his base.
That never happened, despite the increasingly urgent pleas from his supporters to do something, anything, to sell the politics — a process which culminated in a town hall meeting in September, when a woman stood up to tell Obama that she was “tired of defending him.” By the time that remark was made, a breach had occurred between the President and his supporters.
He never told his supporters the simple story, over and over again, that would have made sense of the compromises, made them part of the struggle. Having gained power he disengaged from the prophetic style – a clichéd one for black politicians, and clearly one he had never much liked — and became the progressive managerialist politician that he is at heart. A vacuum had been created, and it was too for him to fill it. Besides somebody else had already done it.
The Tea Party movement is now so well established that various historians have turned their attention to it, tracing the re-use of the ‘tea party’ motif to tax protests in the Clinton years, and in its current formation to many of the libertarians who gathered around Ron Paul, as a kind of insurgency within the Republican party. Its more visible public launching — by TV pundit Rick Santelli, launching a tirade against relief or mortgage-holders facing foreclosure — is better known, as is the extensive support given to it by FOX news channel.
Early hopes by some that it would prove to be little more than a media creation have not been borne out. There’s now a dizzying array of tea parties, freedom foundations, spending revolts and so on, ostensibly uncoordinated, with no party structure, each with their own website, blog, meetup, and on and on. They offer supporters an entire political cosmology, with a myth of the Fall — away from revolutionary fidelity, to liberalism, which they argue to be an abandonment of our natural rights, which thereby makes everything possible, from the progressive income tax through global warming to Communism.
In their energy, their enthusiasm, their anarchic anti-organisation they mirror the “Yippies” of the 1960s. Like all such groups they have had a power beyond their numbers, as they are the only players on the field offering passionate conviction. That and the money.
For if the 2010 midterms are going to be significant for anything, it’s as the elections when money clawed its way out of the cage, and wrecked the joint. The Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision of January, struck down a part of the McCain-Feingold Act, which had limited the ability of corporate groups — including companies, non-profits and unions — from airing “electioneering communication” in the 30 days before an election. It was a way of closing the loophole created by limits on direct donation. Put simply, companies or front groups could air ads attacking a candidate’s politics, morals, cleanliness etc without being part of a politicians campaign.
It was a colourful feature of American political life, and now it’s back with a vengeance, for the ‘Citizens United’ decision effectively sets precedent against any attempt to limit the power of corporate groups to do what they like. Essentially, the court has set in concrete the distinctively American idea — coincidentally first promulgated in New Jersey — that the individual rights guaranteed in the constitution to an individual can be extended to a company.
It is an enormous victory for capital, and, as Obama remarked, a reversal of a century of limitation on corporations from Teddy Roosevelt onwards.
Once Citizens United vs. FCC passed into law, the floodgates opened. The Tea Party is genuine — but it is also a ghost movement, an intersection of money and image, made visible in the literally dozens of logos for diverse groups — FreedomWorks, Crossroads GPS, Spending Revolt, etc etc — that tag onto each other’s websites. The TV has filled with ads from a thousand pop-up PACs, crowding out the pharmaceutical advertisements, and their surreal disclaimers, which are its usual staple (‘Tintalia has been known to cause sudden death in a rare number of cases’).
In desperation, the Democrats have latched onto this as an issue itself — and also, the anonymity which the revived campaign style allows — and they’ve even dipped a toe in old left-populism, warning of anonymous foreign donors influencing American political life. Yet they are, by and large, insufficiently bombastic to sell the populist message.
Obama’s senior advisor David Axelrod led the charge against donations by the US Chamber of Commerce to Republican candidates by suggesting that money from their foreign members may be going into it. Challenged, he backed down. Of course he should have said “Of course there’s foreign money! Don’t be stupid! We’ll be speaking Chinese by 2012!”
But they can’t. They’re not that sort of people. On a rough calculation, Artie is a grand a year better off under Obama, with better access to college, and the possibility of affordable health insurance, which he currently doesn’t have. But they haven’t told him any of this.
Which is why their arse is being handed to them. Even in Jersey, which looking across the water to the towers and canyons of the old trading post of Manhattan, ought to know a thing or two about being caught under.