Fear and Voting in the USA

People are terrified over the future of the republic.

BY Susan J. Douglas

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The media are missing possibly one of the biggest stories of our time: widespread outrage, despair and fear over the subversion of a host of democratic processes.

I listened as his voice cracked. At a major national conference, a colleague from another university–an eminent historian–could barely contain his anguish as he referred to the recent detention bill and its gutting of habeas corpus. A few hours later I listened to two young people who work in the film industry talk about how they fully expected this election to be stolen. Driving through Oakland, Calif., I saw a movie marquee urging people to demand paper ballots from electronic voting machines so there’s a record of their votes. In my classes I have been asking my students why they don’t follow the news, and they say, “Why bother–it’s all spin and you can’t believe it.”

As the news media finally begins to turn its attention to the congressional elections, we are getting a focus on the trees, but not the forest. Will Rick Santorum win or lose? Will the Republicans pay for the public’s opposition to the war in Iraq? But when you talk to a range of everyday people, it’s the forest they’re concerned about: Will our system of constitutional democracy survive? And for many, this election is a crucial, desperate test. Because the evidence is that this administration and its allies will do anything–anything–to stay in power.

Can you remember a time when people were so terrified (not an overstatement) about the future of the republic? Everywhere they look they see collapse. The legitimacy of the entire infrastructure–Congress, the presidency, the news media, the electoral process–is in question. When can you remember an onslaught of so many books, issued almost weekly now, that seek to save the nation by documenting the incompetence and duplicity of Team Bush and its various arrogant, power-grabbing, anti-democratic adventures? Fiasco by Thomas Ricks, The One Percent Doctrine by Ron Suskind, How Bush Rules by Sidney Blumenthal, The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, The Greatest Story Ever Sold by Frank Rich, Hubris by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, the list goes on and on. Even Bob Woodward, sensing a change in the atmosphere (and his fortunes), has produced the mea culpa State of Denial. Most of these books have been or are bestsellers. Yet there is a disconnect between acknowledgement (finally!) of the Bush crowd’s past deceits, along with the lax journalistic scrutiny of them, and outrage about what they are up to right now, today, in further abrogating our rights.

There have been times when the news media have been ahead of the public, bringing the civil rights movement or the women’s movement into people’s living rooms and playing a central role in changing their minds about race and gender relations in the country. Today, still trapped in old new routines–just look at the huge play given to the Foley scandal–they are behind a rather large sector of the population. The news media seems to be reporting on the dots–breakdown of voting machines here, increased carnage in Iraq there–without connecting them. They are missing possibly one of the biggest stories of our time: widespread outrage, despair and fear over the subversion of a host of democratic processes.

People aren’t fools. Many know, without using the term “neoliberalism,” that the government and the press have been in the hands (and service) of elites for a long time. But it is the determined and very public turn from neoliberalism to naked autocratic power that has so many of us freaked out. People sense that the country is veering toward some horrid hybrid that exhibits the repression of a fascist state and the incompetence of a banana republic. They see a defining turn that is shaping what kind of a country the United States will be for the next five, 10, 25 years, and it is a very dispiriting picture.

The 300-pound gorilla in the room is widespread anxiety over the integrity of the election, which is a proxy for the future of the country. Few of us are reassured by the public opinion polls showing Congress, Bush and the Republicans in the ratings toilet, because we’ve read Fooled Again by Mark Crispin Miller, Was the 2004 Election Stolen? by In These Times’ Joel Bleifuss and Steve Freeman, and the articles in Rolling Stone by Robert Kennedy Jr. We know about the various Diebold disasters, including the latest in Maryland, in which the supposedly secret computer codes that run the machines appeared in a former legislator’s mailbox. A recent poll conducted in Pennsylvania found that nearly two-thirds of the voters there do not fully trust these machines to accurately count their votes.

Yet the possible (probable?) upcoming voting booth malfunctions, the widespread alarm throughout the land about that and all the other Team Bush assaults on the constitution, have not been captured, reported or framed by the news media. In the second week in October, Cory Lidle’s plane crash into a New York high rise got three times as much coverage as the looming congressional elections. But the dread is out there, all over the place, holding its breath, waiting to see what happens.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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