"Cabal" catches something too. They have been the tightest-knit, most secretive group since at least the Nixon White House or perhaps simply in memory. They wrested victory from defeat in 2000 and then took that for a mandate to impose long-held private agendas on American society and the world.
"Cabal within a cabal" wouldn't be a bad choice either, since the neocons, who took up secondary positions in the administration (especially in the Pentagon and the Vice-President's office), came to power with an agenda all their own, imperial in nature, global in scope, and managed to convert their bosses and the President himself into believers. It was, after a fashion, a hijacking within a hijacking.
To begin with, they had long planned to take down Saddam Hussein, establish permanent bases in Iraq (since the U.S. was being forced to scale down its basing stance drastically in the crucial oil state of Saudi Arabia), remake the Middle East, and safeguard a Sharonista Israel. (Remember, several of these men had worked for or been closely associated with Israel's Likud Party and saw little distinction between American interests and Israeli ones.) Beyond that, they were determined to roll back a weakened post-Soviet Russia in Central Asia, establish a position of ultimate military power across the oil lands of our Earth, and take control of and thoroughly militarize space. (All the better to dominate you with, my dear.) In a world without another military superpower, they saw opportunity and their imaginations ran wild simply because it was beyond them to conceive of other powers on our planet than the super ones. Hence, their fatal miscalculation when it came to puny Iraq, their inability to factor in the kind of national resistance that has been a hallmark of the last two centuries of our planet's history and against which one imperial army after another has in the end failed, even when not defeated in the purely military sense.
Or here's another word that might fit, if not now, then in a second term: "oligarchs." I'm not sure that there's been another administration so willing to extol the American virtues of "freedom," "patriotism" (only other people are "nationalistic"), "compassion," and a tradition of "rights and liberties," while putting their minds so completely to the task of creating the foundations for a one-party, even one-faction, militarized state in which only the President has the right to bestow or remove rights and liberties. Starve the beast, as the saying went among their economic thinkers, when considering the funding of basic governmental services. But starve themselves? Never. Their motto might as well have been: All for one and one for one.
Give them credit, though. They proved amongst the greatest gamblers and risk-takers in our history. From second one, they were ready to roll the dice, if given half a chance. That half a chance, as no one could forget, came soon enough and after the first moments of stunned fear and panic on September 11, 2001, they were more than ready. They stepped up to the craps table and threw those dice, convinced that only 7s and 11s could turn up. Of course, they were gambling with other people's lives which made it all so much easier, so thrilling, so glorious, such an adventure.
Let's just remember as we go to the polls that, thanks to them, even while we vote, halfway across the Earth Americans will be dying -- and they will be doing so because the conspirators of the Bush administration couldn't resist the urge to loose force on the world in a mad plan to dominate our planet.
The question, of course, is: Will they go or will they stay? Let me review some of the factors that should come into play in assessing how the election is likely to turn out.
Polls: If you want to give a little career advice to a young person, the word is no longer "plastics," but "pollsters." What a life, the carefree life of a pollster, now that they're wall to wall across our great nation. Why only this afternoon I got a call inviting me to take part in a "survey." In return, the caller started to offer me a free pass to some film at which point I politely said no and hung up. I'm one of those people who always hangs up on such calls and I know I'm hardly alone. So let's just start with hang-ups. As Jay Rosen comments at his PressThink blog:
"All year long, I have waited for one honest and detailed article from the press about the percentage of people who hang up the phone when a pollster calls. Zogby, Sir: how many? Gallup, what's your number? New York Times/CBS poll: please disclose. .. I've heard it's the nightmare number in the industry. Joe Klein of Time and CNN hints around about it. I just want to know what the number is--a percentage--for the big polling operations."
How do they deal with all us hang-ups? It's a professional secret, but there's nothing secret about the polls themselves. They are the screaming wallpaper of our political season. The daily tracking polls pour out (Zogby in the morning, Rasmussen at noon, the Washington Post at 5pm… and so on) and yet, as Michael Schwartz, former pro poller (as in pro wrestler), wrote at this site last month, polls are particularly ill-suited instruments for measuring small changes in political opinion over short periods of time. I asked him to offer a quick update of his thoughts on the eve of the election and here they are, sent to me under the title, "Beware of Reporters Bearing Polls":
"The election is upon us and the flood of polls has reached tsunami proportions. Our best defense is to ignore them all. We have already absorbed the one fact they have to offer -- the election is close. Everything else is hype and – sadly -- lies. A typical report is the one I heard Sunday on NBC, that Bush had inched ahead in Ohio and that Kerry was maintaining a shaky lead in Pennsylvania. These conclusions were based on the Mason-Dixon Polls, one of several respected polling agencies active in the election. But the report is garbage, because it ignores the contrary results of a raft of other equally respected polls in each of these states. In Ohio, for example, of the nine polls taken in from Thursday to Sunday, four showed Kerry ahead, (by as much as 6%), four showed Bush ahead (by as much as 3%), and one showed a tie. In Pennsylvania, of the 10 polls taken in that same period, seven showed Kerry ahead (by as much as 8%), one showed Bush ahead (by 2%), with two ties. Which polls are right? Nobody knows, and they could all be wrong.
"And, by the way, Kerry supporters should not get too excited by his 7-1 margin in Pennsylvania. In 2000, among the 29 polls completed just before the election, 26 gave Bush the edge over Gore (by as much as 9%!), two gave Gore an edge (by 2%) and there was one tie. As we all know, Gore actually won the electoral vote by 0.5%.
"So, when NBC chooses the Mason Dixon poll and reports it as the truth, they are engaging in deliberate deception. They know about the other polls and they know that to say anything except ‘we have no idea who is ahead' is a simple lie.
"The polls are a blunt instrument that cannot assess slight differences. They can disagree by as much as 10% -- as current national and state polls are doing -- and there is no way to tell which poll is correct. Any reporter or polling agency claiming to know who is "ahead" -- nationally or in the key contested states -- is engaging in deliberate deception or remarkably ignorant."
Turnout: Okay, if judging by the polls is reasonably hopeless, then what to judge by, what to think about? The most obvious thing is turnout. We know that the turnout effort -- on both sides --- may possibly be unprecedented. Just anecdotally I know of the children of three friends and acquaintances and several adults who have gone to Florida for the duration, while close friends of mine voted absentee and are heading for Philadelphia as poll watchers -- stories I could repeat endlessly. To judge by correspondence at my site, it seems as if all of Northern California has headed for neighboring Nevada.
I have no doubt similar stories could be told on the Bush side of things. However, my impression is that, despite all the missing Christian fundamentalist voters in the last election whom Karl Rove plans to turn out this time around, the Bush people have a somewhat shallower pool to dip into. After all, they concentrated so totally on rousing their base to the exclusion of so much else, and their base may have its limits. What they're counting on, I believe, is a traditional calculation and traditional calculations may not hold for this election. The traditional calculation is that newly registered younger voters are far less likely to turn out to vote than other voters. So turnout numbers matter. My guess: The higher the turnout, the less good the news for the Bush camp. 59-60% could indicate a Kerry victory.
Chris Nelson in his Washington insider newsletter, The Nelson Report, puts the matter this way:
"The pollster's pollster, Charlie Cook, says to stop looking at the polls or you will go crazy, assuming, of course, you aren't already. OK, but then what do we watch? Turnout. Followed by turnout. Concluding with...turnout. Cook reports that voter registration by both parties this year is beyond anything he's experienced in his long career. There is no question the actual turnout will exceed 2000's total of 105-million voters. If the total increases by 10-million or less, that's good news for the Republicans. If the total ‘skyrockets,' as some experts expect, a total in excess of 215-million increasingly favors Kerry and the Democrats...it means the kids and minorities have come through. They don't always.
"For president, that is. Cook warns that nothing can change Republican control of the House, due to redistricting trends and campaign money for incumbents. And while several Democratic Senate races have been better, or more competitive than predicted, and a couple of Republican incumbents far worse than expected, Cook sees the likely Senate outcome as a GOP gain of one, maybe two. Wouldn't a big Kerry win pull along enough Democratic senate candidates? Doesn't sound like it. Nothing short of a Republican sweep would give either party ‘control' of the Senate, of course, due to the 60-vote rule. So if it's President Kerry, he will likely have a solidly Republican Congress to contend with."
Youthful new voters: Okay, among that turnout, who matters? Well, first and foremost those young voters. Again, anecdotally, it's clear to me that in this election, on and off college campuses, the very act of voting is in the air, driven, I suspect, by fears of an onrushing draft. The polls don't adequately reflect the young voters who may turn out -- or rather they assume that such voters will not turn out in record-breaking numbers. Yet if they do, it would matter in any exceedingly close election because 18-24 year-olds, in particular, break for Kerry by such staggering margins (15-20 percentage points). Polls have shown this over and over and, at such margins, these measurements are undoubtedly reliable.
In addition, younger voters have been overlooked for a purely technological reason. Ever more of them exist in a largely or all cell-phone world and pollsters, to this point, only call landlines -- the sole exception being Zogby who just this Sunday released the results of the first political cell-phone poll of our times. While, if you read the details, it's a limited experiment, the results indicate that "young mobile voters," as he calls them, pick Kerry over Bush by a 55%-40% margin. (Note that this figure includes 25-29 year olds who, most polls show, break far more evenly for the two presidential candidates.) So if the young turn out in striking numbers, it's bad for Bush.
Single women: Here's a category that's been largely missing-in-action in this campaign and remarkably little has been written about it. In 2000, 22 million single women (including those divorced, separated, and widowed as well as those never married) did not bother to vote. That's a figure startling enough to read twice and then to wonder why neither campaign really went after this "demographic," so much more real than those "security moms," who may largely have been a figment of the campaign-season imagination.
Among all those who didn't write about this demographic, Ruth Rosen, former San Francisco Chronicle columnist, did at the Nation magazine website. "The real story of this presidential election," she comments, "is the widening Marriage Gap -- the difference between how married and unmarried women vote -- and what the presidential candidates have or have not done to mobilize these 22 million women." They didn't do much, she adds, including addressing in any of the debates such topics of concern to many of these women as the need for decent child care. But as it happens:
"Although the candidates failed to appeal directly to single women, dozens of grassroots groups and national organizations pursued them with passionate determination. Armed with polling data and materials provided by WVWV, vast platoons of volunteers from America Coming Together, US Action, Mainstreet Moms Oppose Bush, the Feminist Majority and many ad hoc groups registered countless single women in swing states. They will also be working to bring these voters to the polls on election day. Meanwhile, Moveon.org, the Media Fund and Planned Parenthood broadcast ads that accurately reflected their precarious lives. "
Since this demographic, according to Democracy Corps polling figures, supports Kerry over Bush by a staggering 26 percentage points (while married women in the same poll support Bush by 2 percentage points), the degree to which single women don't repeat their 2000 nonturnout is important indeed.
Military families: The military, from the officer corps on down, has long been a Republican voting bloc, which is why the Pentagon put such effort this year into getting the troops to vote. But the Iraq War -- and especially the rotational pressures on our overstretched military and the backdoor draft of National Guard and Reserve troops -- has clearly created cracks in this bloc. Only late last week, the Pentagon extended by months the tours of duties of 6,500 troops in Iraq in order to increase American troop strength there. This sort of thing, along with deepening doubts about the war itself, has hit military families hard. Some are already organizing against the war; others are turning against Bush. Sometimes just sitting on one's hands in an election is enough to change things. Votes are likely to be lost here.
Conservatives/Republicans: This is the single most interesting category of all. It has gone, as far as I can tell, largely unmeasured and yet anecdotal evidence is strong that some number of older-style conservatives as well as moderate Republicans, horrified by soaring deficits of an unrecognizably unconservative kind, or by the hubris of neocon imperial dreams, or by the loss of liberties represented by the Patriot Act and the imprisoning of American citizens without charges, or by Abu Ghraib, or by presidential lies, or by a host of other issues, or by all of the above will either sit on their hands or vote for Kerry. After all, there is a deeply honorable conservative tradition in America that bears no relation to anything that's happened over the last four years.
It's worth remembering that the Bush administration is the single most radical administration in historical memory and that, while effectively pushing so many fear buttons, the President is really offering voters a world in chronic upheaval, a world of endless "vigilance" and ceaseless war. This is not the most appealing vision around for those who are willing to take a hard look, and some conservatives and other Republicans are. How many we simply don't know. The numbers may be small, but (as with military families), if this proves an exceedingly tight race, important.
Katharine Q. Seelye of the New York Times analyzed a mid-October New York Times/CBS poll and found that "while 11 percent of people who voted for Mr. Bush in 2000 said they were voting this time for Mr. Kerry, 7 percent of those who voted for Mr. Gore said they would vote this year for Mr. Bush." Seelye added, "The difference was within the margin of sampling error." Similarly, at the local level a "survey released Sunday by the Iowa Poll showed 6 percent of Republicans [in that state] said they were voting for Mr. Kerry, compared with 2 percent of Democrats voting for Mr. Bush. In 2000, when Al Gore won Iowa by about 4,000 votes, the same pollster reported that the two sides were nearly evenly split on lost votes from within their parties."
Another way to gauge such sentiment is to consider newspaper editorial pages. As it happens, at least 37 newspapers which backed the President in 2000 have switched to John Kerry, while only 5 have moved in the other direction.
Take the Tampa Tribune in Florida, a paper which has endorsed Republicans for president since the days of Dwight D. Eisenhower and which began an editorial entitled, Why We Cannot Endorse President Bush For Reelection this way:
"We find ourselves in a position unimaginable four years ago when we strongly endorsed for president a fiscal conservative and ‘moderate man of mainstream convictions' who promised to wield military muscle only as a last resort and to resist the lure of ‘nation building…' As stewards of the Tribune's editorial voice, we find it unimaginable to not be lending our voice to the chorus of conservative-leaning newspapers endorsing the president's re- election… But we are unable to endorse President Bush for re- election because of his mishandling of the war in Iraq, his record deficit spending, his assault on open government and his failed promise to be a ‘uniter not a divider' within the United States and the world."
Though the Tribune did not endorse Kerry either, the generally anti-imperial American Conservative magazine did in a piece entitled Kerry's the One:
"Bush has behaved like a caricature of what a right-wing president is supposed to be, and his continuation in office will discredit any sort of conservatism for generations. The launching of an invasion against a country that posed no threat to the U.S., the doling out of war profits and concessions to politically favored corporations, the financing of the war by ballooning the deficit to be passed on to the nation's children, the ceaseless drive to cut taxes for those outside the middle class and working poor: it is as if Bush sought to resurrect every false 1960s-era left-wing cliché about predatory imperialism and turn it into administration policy."
Libertarian Lew Rockwell of the LewRockwell.com website issued an "anti-endorsement," entitled The Myth of the Kerry Calamity in which he urged libertarians not to throw their votes away on President Bush whose supporters he characterized this way:
"[T]hey liken him to God. They consider him savior. They trust him with leadership. They really credit him with securing the country. They say that he is ruling in the name of liberty. It is remarkable, even demonic. The Bush regime isn't just a group of leaders vying for our affections. It is the world's leading example of the cult of power itself. Kerry may be dangerous but he heads no cult and commands no army of deluded religious fanatics willing to celebrate him as he leads the country into a totalitarian hell of endless war and central administration."
Typical of older-style moderate Republicans, President Eisenhower's son John wrote a piece in the Manchester Union Leader, the conservative New Hampshire newspaper, Why I will vote for John Kerry for President:
"As son of a Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, it is automatically expected by many that I am a Republican. For 50 years, through the election of 2000, I was. With the current administration's decision to invade Iraq unilaterally, however, I changed my voter registration to independent, and barring some utterly unforeseen development, I intend to vote for the Democratic Presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry."
Such conservative and/or Republican pieces, reflecting profound disappointment with the President and his administration, can be multiplied many times over. (See, for instance, a series of "conversations with conservatives" at the Mother Jones magazine website, or simply note Jesse Ventura's recent fly-by-night endorsement of Kerry.)
Even among the neocons, the first public split has opened. In the conservative foreign policy journal The National Interest, Francis Fukuyama, an interesting thinker who identified himself closely with the neocons, recently attacked the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war and its urge to bring democracy to the world on the tip of a cruise missile or by force of arms. He also announced, as Danny Postel explains in a thoughtful report at the openDemocracy.net website, that he would not vote for George Bush this time around. ("I just think that if you're responsible for this kind of a big policy failure, you ought to be held accountable for it.")
But the question, of course, is how all this intellectual ferment and upset translates, if at all, into the world of ordinary conservative and/or Republican voters. On this there is far less evidence and most of it is anecdotal. We don't, for instance, know how typical are the examples Joanna Walters of the British Observer found of moderate Republican women disturbed by the President's extremism on "social issues," especially abortion. ("Linda Binder, a Republican State Senator in the conservative state of Arizona, is typical. Despite voting for Bush in 2000, she has pulled her support over what she calls his 'wacky, far right' position on women's rights.") Or how deep a visceral distaste for the President's environmental policies goes among otherwise conservative hunters, a subject on which Jim Carleton of the Wall Street Journal reported recently ("Bush Disappoints Some Hunters," October 22). He wrote in part:
"'The president himself is an outdoorsman,' says Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality… Referring to Mr. Bush's conservation work on his Texas ranch, he adds: ‘The president practices what he preaches.'
"Some outdoor enthusiasts don't see it the same way. At the Outdoor Adventures Hunting and Fishing Show in Albuquerque last February, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation asked 600 sportsmen about their election choice in 2000 and their plans for November. Nearly half said they wouldn't vote for Mr. Bush in 2004, even though most said they had done so in 2000. A National Wildlife Federation poll in June of 20,752 hunters and fishermen found a majority opposed to several administration policies, including one to expedite oil and gas development on public lands by weakening federal water regulations."
What all this does or doesn't add up to we won't know for a while, if ever, but there is much anecdotal evidence that upset with the President has grown in at least small ways in unexpected precincts. Here, for instance, is a week-old e-note from a friend from Ohio, who has something of a bellwether extended family, including many Republicans:
"Except for Bush endorsements from the Cincinnati Enquirer and Columbus Dispatch, all the news from Ohio this past week has been positive. Democratic registrations and mobilization has been huge, and I'm still hearing about Republicans who plan to break ranks with the party, either by voting for Kerry or sitting this one out. (My sister has been hearing more and more casual talk in her Republican-saturated neighborhood about the virtues of having an executive and legislature representing different parties.)
"In fact, while the mainstream media is finally talking (incessantly, at this point) about the potential impact of a massive turnout (as something the polls haven't accounted for), none of the network political talk shows has said much, if anything, about apostasy in the Republican ranks. All of the polls seem to assume that all Republicans -- moderates, evangelicals, and neocons alike -- will vote along party lines, and I am just not convinced that's the case. I have encountered just too much evidence to the contrary over the past six months -- in newspaper articles on key swing states, in radio surveys in Republican strongholds, in casual conversation with longtime Republican friends and relatives. It's as if no one is connecting the dots. The Democrats are more united than I have ever seen them, and the Republicans simply are not. But no one is saying that."
The God that failed?
If John Kerry wins -- about which I feel a modest optimism -- we will indeed credit that victory to some impossible to measure and distinctly unpollable combination of the above factors, especially of the upsurge in activism George Bush called forth from quiescence by his very extremism. If John Kerry loses and the most dangerous American government in living memory gets four more years to gerrymander the universe and pound a one-party, all-war-all-the-time state into place, I think what we first have to realize is that all the rifts and new forces described above will not suddenly disappear. Quite the opposite, they will only grow.
After all, since late 2003 George Bush has been in a desperate race to beat catastrophe in Iraq to the electoral finish line, but the forces his administration has set loose in the world, as in Iraq, will only gain momentum from any victory of his here. As they do, both at home and abroad, traditional conservatives and so many others will become more disillusioned and that disillusionment will reach ever deeper into America. Hunters who care about the pristine nature of their hunting grounds will be yet more disturbed; young people fearing the draft and military families fearing for their loved ones will, as the Iraq War grows yet worse, become both more fearful and more active; fear of one-party statism among conservatives will continue to percolate, and so on. In other words, George Bush's victory will only generate more and deeper versions of what we've already seen.
But I'm afraid we'll also have to acknowledge another reality -- that we now live at the heart of an enormous imperial power, with an increasingly frightened population, many of whom are understandably shutting their eyes and hanging on to what they have for dear life. And I suspect as well that we'll need to give stronger consideration to something Lew Rockwell brought up in the quote above: We may be dealing with what is, in effect, a growing national cult.
Recently Dan Froomkin, columnist for the Washington Post, wrote of how the President's handlers have created a "bubble of pure adoration even within nominally unfriendly areas… giving political rallies a revival-like feel." That caught something. The bubble around the President; the quasi-religious, adoring fervor inside it. George Bush has, in this sense, already become a cultish figure of near-worship. If he is reelected, this phenomenon, still in its early stages, may grow into an American version of emperor worship in classical Rome. After all, despite our Constitution, the President already has managed to combine the religious and the political in his own person. In the process, he has also become an object of adoration for his often religiously inspired, even "awakened" followers.
This larger bubble phenomenon has developed alongside a smaller but no less significant one. As Nicholas Lehmann of the New Yorker magazine recently wrote (Remember the Alamo):
"Bob Woodward told me that, during an interview he conducted with Bush in December, 2001, he asked the President whether he ever sought advice about the war on terror from distinguished figures outside his Administration, such as Brent Scowcroft, his father's national-security adviser. Woodward told me that Bush said to him, ‘I have no outside advice. Anybody who says they're an outside adviser of this Administration on this particular matter is not telling the truth. First of all, in the initial phase of this war, I never left the compound. Nor did anybody come in the compound. I was, you talk about one guy in a bubble.' Bush said, ‘The only true advice I receive is from our war council,' and he added, ‘I didn't call around, asking, ‘What the heck do you think we ought to do?'"
All of this, in turn, may help explain why, despite the President's news year from hell, so little of that news has seemingly penetrated or shaken his core followers. A PIPA poll recently reported:
"Even after the final report of Charles Duelfer to Congress saying that Iraq did not have a significant WMD program, 72% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47%) or a major program for developing them (25%). Fifty-six percent assume that most experts believe Iraq had actual WMD and 57% also assume, incorrectly, that Duelfer concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program. Kerry supporters hold opposite beliefs on all these points. Similarly, 75% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, and 63% believe that clear evidence of this support has been found."
And so on through the issues. PIPA director Steven Krull commented:
"The roots of the Bush supporters' resistance to information… very likely lie in the traumatic experience of 9/11 and equally in the near pitch-perfect leadership that President Bush showed in its immediate wake. This appears to have created a powerful bond between Bush and his supporters--and an idealized image of the President that makes it difficult for his supporters to imagine that he could have made incorrect judgments before the war, that world public opinion could be critical of his policies or that the President could hold foreign policy positions that are at odds with his supporters."
Obviously not every Bush supporter is a potential cultist, but enough of them may be to provide the basis for yet more dangerous developments in a second term in office. Cultural critic Neal Gabler, writing in the Sunday opinion pages of the Los Angeles Times (Karl Rove: America's Mullah), warned that American democracy hangs in the balance on November 2. He added:
"Americans love toughness. They love swagger. In a world of complexity and uncertainty, especially after Sept. 11, they love the idea of a man who doesn't need anyone else. They even love the sense of mission, regardless of its wisdom. These values run deep in the American soul, and Rovism consciously taps them. But they are not democratic. Unwavering discipline, demonization of foes, disdain for reality and a personal sense of infallibility based on faith are the stuff of a theocracy -- the president as pope or mullah and policy as religious warfare."
If George Bush is the central figure in a developing American politico-religious cult then, even if he is defeated, there will be sizable numbers of Americans in need of deprogramming, assuring an ugly four years to come, no matter what.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is a co-founder of The American Empire Project. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture among other books.