Hell in a Hand Basket: An Election Postscriptby Jonas Salganik
From now on it is axiomatic that anyone willing and able to spend an obscene amount of their own money to run for any public office, in this case an estimated $50 or $60 million to be Mayor of NYC, is a serious candidate, no matter how loopy they may be in any other aspect of their lives. The election of billionaire Michael Bloomberg is a clear sign of how freaked out and traumatized New Yorkers are right now. Of course, we do have to acknowledge, once again, the fantastic performance of the trusty Bat Computer, in selecting an excellent team of handlers for Bloomberg. His team ran a smart and efficient campaign. However, a large part of Bloomberg’s margin of victory consisted of formerly steadfast liberal Democrats who were fed up in a new and unusual way for them; they just couldn’t bear to face the issues right now. I call them “Posts,” in reference to etiquette maven Emily Post, because these people felt it rude after September 11 to cite and contest policy matters.
Bloomberg’s positions were presented in campaign ads as a bold fusion of the best of both Democratic and Republican thought, or selections that only an outsider, someone above it all, could make. His actual agenda, though, was merely pre-marketing, a rhetorical set of values designed to appeal to all voters. Substantively, the campaign outlined only a few highly technical, yet somehow still vague positions on the big issues like education and affordable housing. (Even now, we still do not know what his plans are.) Bloomberg’s handlers, to their perverse credit, understood the prevailing mood. They saw how the shell-shocked city’s infantile ego-defenses could be exploited, that in times of stress a higher percentage of voters become reactionary and averse to critical thought. Moreover, it is easy to drive your message home when you are omnipresent, even a message as Orwellian as “I’m a leader, not a politician.” The Mayor-Elect was able to saturate the local airwaves with ads, ads and more ads. In fact, Bloomberg had been the Good Fairy for local media sales and accounting departments during the recent economic downturn. In essence, the Bloomberg campaign was the largest, most opulent, but largely hollow, chocolate Easter Bunny of a campaign New York has ever seen. In the final stretch, Bloomberg’s handlers mixed in some effective negative ads, ads that framed pre-existing, negative perceptions of the opponent, Mark Green, rather than accusing him of anything specific.
For Green the climate of aversion and solicitude that followed 9/11 must have felt as if the world had suddenly been sucked dry of oxygen. Shock, that is how I rationalize the veteran Green’s failure to recognize Giuliani’s capacity to exploit the devastation of the terrorist attacks politically. Like a chump, Green fell for the trap Mayor Giuliani set in support of Bloomberg, an appeal to Green and Ferrer to let Giuliani stay on as Mayor for an extra three months so that Giuliani could better manage the terror crisis in the city. (That is unless Giuliani was trying to extend his term in office three months only to prove some other point, like not having to pay rent for his estranged wife and his children.) So while Bloomberg rode Mayor Giuliani’s post-September 11 popularity surge like a champion surfer, Mark Green was spotted, in the worst form, paddling unsurely after that same wave too.
Green still had just enough strength left as a candidate after his brush with Team Rudy to win the close primary over Freddie Ferrer, but the win was ugly. When Green failed to placate the honchos that run Ferrer’s wing of the city’s Democratic Party, his campaign hit a wall. Around this time the “Posts” began concocting strange, almost paranoid, defenses for their dislike of Green and their newfound support of Bloomberg, some of which seemed to defy reason. Going into the primary, Green’s record on issues of racial justice was unrivaled among white politicians in New York; he had actually made progress in ending racial profiling in New York City while others had merely protested. So the idea, espoused by many formerly loyal Democratic voters, that Green is a racist because his campaign produced some literature linking Freddie Ferrer with his most prominent political patrol, Al Sharpton, and/or because he considered extending Giuliani’s term, can only be understood as a new pathology. We can call it “Posts’ Syndrome.”
Though it’s possible that Bloomberg may turn out to be a better choice for Mayor than Green in the long run, it is certain that unhealthy forces appear responsible for some of the margin of victory in this election. While it is predictable that Republicans will always vote in terms of envy and retention, I generally rely on Democrats to think through their political choices from a larger social perspective. In this case it seems that some of the people whom I used to count on just gave up. Some even decided to affirm the transformation of their lives into the tiniest parts in a gigantic movie, by voting for the candidate with Spielberg Holiday magic rather than that pushy guy who has been out there fighting for years and years. As usual, I am bitter at this outcome.
Maybe what hurts is the realization that in this new world being Mayor, Senator or President is not so much about the democratic process as it is about controlling information and managing money, the skill-set of most self-made multimillionaires. We have a government largely by and for moguls, but maybe it always was that way. About a century ago America’s greatest (and all-but-forgotten) social thinker, Thorstein Veblen, wrote that a Marxist revolution would never happen in the USA because poor people identify with the rich and emulate their lives. A century later, the idea that the needs of the rich and powerful should count more than those of normal people has again become the unstated premise of our national conversation. Recently we saw the President, a child of wealth and privilege himself, on TV asking American school children to send a dollar to a hungry kid in Afghanistan. This is sickening, when you know that, off-set, he is simultaneously pushing through Congress a new, ten-years-retroactive tax cut; a giveback only for the nation’s richest companies, ostensibly to spur the nation’s economic recovery. In the Bloomberg campaign this invisible value, this same envious identification with the wealthy oppressor, was evident in how the media never questioned the idea of a New York City run directly by the people with the most money to spend.
Jonas Salganik is a contributor to The Brooklyn Rail