Wednesday, September 10, 2008

McCain and Palin as "The Lone Ranger and Tonto" and other fictional characters

by Norman Markowitz

The "Washington Media elite" is currently coming forward with polls that show McCain moving ahead of Obama. Before panic sets in, one should remember that this election represents new factors and forces in U.S. politics.

First there is the generation which wasn't old enough to vote in the until the 21st century. Those voters, twenty somethings and thirty somethings, are overwhelmingly for Obama and they have registered in larger numbers than ever before. Also, the primaries brought about a larger Democratic registration than ever before. While I don't say that the polls are unimportant (by October they will become more important in terms of addressing issues and mobilizing the electorate) one should understand the tendency of ruling class media to use them to create what sociologists have long called the "bandwagon" effect, create pessimism among activists and bring about self-fulfilling prophecies. This is why in some countries, the publicizing of poll results before elections is limited so as not to effect the election's outcome. Also, there is in this election what I would call the "Literary Digest" effect. In 1936, the Literary Digest, a respected
publication reaching primarily educated middle classes, published a poll that had Republican Alf Landon defeating Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt in the election won the greatest landslide victory in U.S. history. What went wrong? The Digest poll was based on telephone data and excluded large number of lower income people who didn't have telephones and who voted overwhelmingly for Roosevelt.

Election are always mobilizing exercises, not mechanical expressions of the public's views and prejudices. The U.S. as political scientists have long noted, is different from other developed countries with universal suffrage and competitive elections in that the turnout for elections is much lower and those who don't vote are drawn primarily from lower income groups. This, along with their appeal over the last three decades to lower income members of rightwing fundamentalist churches that have come to function as political clubs of the Republican party, has given the Republican right political power in the U.S. Mobilizing the tens of millions of younger voters, lower income voters in cities and suburbs whom both the Republicans and the conservative Democratic Leadership Council Democrats fear, those who have backed Senator Obama through the primaries, is still the only strategy for victory.

Even McCain and Palin understand this, which explains why they have shifted images in their campaign, proclaiming themselves as "agents of change" rather than mocking Obama's appeals for change As I watch McCain and Palin go on the hustings and campaign against government corruption, the "Washington elite, and for small town "middle America" I think of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in the old movie State of the Union. In fact I think of the aging Spencer Tracy and his feisty buddy-girl-friend-wife Katherine Hepburn in a whole bunch of Hollywood movies--a couple of well matched "rugged individualists". Both Tracy and Hepburn in real life were New Deal Democrats and these movies had little to do with what conservative Republicans at the time considered "right conduct." They also had little to do with reality, even though in films like State of Union, it was clear that there were powerful and venal press interests creating these images around heroic candidates whom they thought they could controli. In the Hollywood films, the righteous rugged individdualists prevailed, which is impossible with the McCain-Palin ticket in real life, since the McCain Palin ticket is the Republican ticket and the Republican party today more not less than the past is the party by for and of the corporations, the millionaires and billionaires, the military-industrial complex, agribusiness, big oil, and the lobbyists and publicists who serve them.

In that regard I also thought of another classic Hollywood film, Preston Sturges The Great McGinty, where the big political boss, known only as Boss, answers this question from an associate--what happens if the Reform party wins. "We are the Reform party. We should we starve while they change office." McCain and Palin are "reformers" in that sense. They represent a corrupt right-wing political machine threatened with losing its power in Washington. So they are running against Washington corruption as the agents of that political machine.

But most of all, I thought of what an old feminist friend of mine at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s told me about certain "male identified" women who were profiting from the women's rights movement in that a male dominated power structure was promoting them to positions that women previously couldn't hold thanks to a movement that they had never actively supported and sometimes opposed. She called them "female Tontos." Tonto was the "faithful Indian companion," of the Lone Ranger, the masked protector of farmers and townspeople in the old West, fighting the bandits and greedy bankers and landowners and then riding off into the sunset with Tonto trailing respectfully behind. The Lone Ranger was a very rugged individualist (you never got to see his face). Unlike Robin Hood, who more of a revolutionary figure who led a band in Sherwood Forrest against the Sheriff of Nottingham and the evil feudal Lords of 13th century England, The Lone Ranger didn't redistribute wealth or fight against a cruel continuing oppressive system. He got rid of the bad guys and rode out of town, which solved the peoples problems and restored small town stability episode after episode.

McCain looks pretty old to be the Lone Ranger (in fact he is old enough to remember the radio show and movie serials that preceded the TV series of the 1950s) but his advocacy of "change" is even less realistic, since the Lone Ranger wasn't a member of the outlaw gangs or wealthy bad guys he fought the way McCain is a representative of big business against labor, and those like himself who have more houses and personal wealth than they can possibly use against the great majority of people who live from paycheck to paycheck and struggle to meet their mortgages and pay down their credit card debt.

Palin talks much more than Tonto (who called the Lone Ranger Kimmo Sabe, or friend and said little else, backing the masked man up when he needed it). But she is someone who is there to run interference for "her man" someone to take care of the voting bloc that the old risque theater and movie star, Mas West(who both was and burlesqued a sex symbol) called "the church people." She is anti-reproductive rights, anti-ERA, anti- any realistic policy of gun control,
anti-environmentalist, anti-affirmative action, anti-peace movement, against all of the movements of modern history in which women have played important roles and which in effect also advanced women's rights. Her relationship to McCain in the campaign is that of Nixon to Eisenhower in 1952 or Agnew to Nixon in 1968, a hatchet person to attack the Democratic candidates by appealing to the prevailing prejudices of the electorate. Except in those campaigns, the Republicans were claiming to represent "change" from incumbent Democratic administrations. McCain and Palin as they role play their campaign are pretending to represent "change" from their own party and administration.

Obama and Biden have a great deal that is positive on their side, from the deepening economic crisis, to the failed rightwing policies of thirty years, to the disastrous course of U.S. foreign policy. In so far as they can carry forward a progressive agenda that those who nominated them believe in, they can and should not only win but win decisively.