The McCainiac let loose in Johnstown

Guy Rundle reports from Pennsylvania, a state divided by the culture wars which McCain and Palin are desperate to win.

Guy Rundle

Topics USA

‘I got a job working construction
For the Johnstown company
But lately there ain’t been much work
On account of the economy.’

Bruce Springsteen, ‘The River’

‘Who’s this Nobama character?’ I said to a couple holding an enormous ‘Nobama’ sign in the queue for the Sarah Palin rally. We were in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I had a cameraman in tow, and I’d quickly realised that a straight approach wasn’t going to get us any interviews. ‘Media? I don’t want to talk to the media.’ ‘Go away, this is our thing here.’ Self-deprecation (‘I’m from Australia, we don’t count’) didn’t work, so we tried a sort of humour, which was at least getting us some face time.

‘It’s No to Obama’, people yelled at me.

‘How do you feel about the bailout?’ I yelled back.

‘We hate it’, they yelled.

‘So why are you supporting John McCain?’

The woman holding the lead bit of the ‘Nobama’ sign took over. ‘The bailout was a three-page document for the banks and John McCain came to town and turned it into a 110-page document’, she yelled. ‘But the eventual bill had a $150billion of earmarks’, I added.

‘Yeah, but that was the Washington insiders’, she yelled back. Others around her looked more doubtful, but she was hardcore and, like a backwoods Madame Defarge, unstinting.

‘But John McCain voted for that.’

‘Yes’, she said, ‘but he didnt want to’.

There were about 2,000 people queueing there in the sharp autumn sunshine, and they’d been waiting since 6am. They would see Palin deliver a stump speech she’d delivered a dozen times. She’d then appear for a couple of photos with dependable crowd members. And at the end, she’d be whisked back to the bus before the press pool could get any shouted questions in.

Yet the waiting was part of the pleasure for many. Beneath the golden autumn hills on one side, and the towering empty brick warehouses of this old steel town on the other, there was something devotional about this. Signs and wonders, and a talisman against the terrible news – that their candidate had not only, when push came to shove, backed the Wall St bailout, in its most bloated corrupt form, but he was also losing badly in the polls.

With Obama’s lead climbing in the polls, something was coming to pass that many Republican loyalists had not deemed possible – and had therefore never really thought about. When Obama’s ratings had slipped below McCain’s in late summer, it had seemed to many like the simple coming-to-pass of what was always going to happen – the country would lose its starry-eyed fascination for the young prince and return to a solid and dependable leader.

Then came the financial crunch. The event would have made it more difficult for even the most astute Republican to avoid taking a hit – and McCain was no strategist. Over the course of a few days his series of blunders – calling the economy fundamentally ‘sound’, then suspending his campaign and calling for a cancellation of the debate, then unsuspending it, and finally signing on to a bailout bill the public detested – destroyed his central claim on the attention of independent voters, that of judgement and experience.

With a total vacuum of leadership in America – President Bush’s appearances before the nation were halting and brief – it was Obama who suddenly appeared as the nation’s de facto president, reserving an opinion on the bailout for a few days, so he could study it carefully and take advice.

This startling reintroduction of concepts – prudence, reflection – absent these past eight years, caught hold of the country at a time when conditions were sufficient to focus minds on a leader chosen for his abilities rather than as a representative of their identity.

With that bump, and with Sarah Palin’s disastrous interviews with CBS News’ Katie Couric, Obama’s polling surged in a way that even the most diehard McCain loyalists could not ignore. Obama appeared to win all three debates, according to public polls, and Joe Biden won the VP debate against Palin. Even the godsend, for McCain, of Joe the Plumber has failed to generate any sufficient shift in the numbers.

Thus with less than a week to go, and with Obama leading by between three and eight per cent in around ten red states, the McCain campaign has performed a drastic triage. The Republicans have abandoned New Mexico, Colorado and Iowa – a decisive move, since losing those states without taking any Democrat ones would give Obama the presidency straight out. Instead, the Republicans hope to retain Ohio, Florida and Virginia (currently running at eight per cent for Obama), and – their most audacious part of it – win Pennsylvania from the Democrats to offset the loss of the Western states. Hence both McCain and Palin will track through every part of the state repeatedly from now until 4 November.

It is desperate, and it is not popular with many Republican pundits, who see it as a last crazy McCainiac move, a vindication of their mistrust of the man’s commitment to team-playing.

They would prefer that, under the cover of continuing a presidential campaign, McCain turns his campaign into a de facto effort to bolster support in failing Senate races. Thirty-three Senate seats are up for re-election and of the dozen that could change hands, all but one would be Democrat gains. A 10-seat gain would give the Democrats 60 seats – a supermajority which would allow them to bypass the ‘filibuster’, the ability to run a debate out by holding the floor (it’s more tediously complicated than that).

Six months ago, there was no chance that this would happen, and Democrat strategists were aiming for a five- to seven-seat gain. A 10-seat scoop is still a long shot, but loathing of Republicans is at such a pitch that a real upset is possible. With control of the Senate, a President Obama would have the opportunity to remake American government. Though he is unlikely to do so, Republicans have drunk so much of their own Kool-Aid that they are now convinced that this cautious Third Way centre-rightist is the last Weatherman, emerging from his two-decade-long deep-cover mission. They would prefer that McCain focus on states like New Hampshire – that he won’t win but can pretend he might – or Georgia – that he won’t lose, but ditto – and shore up senators who may be for the chop.

The Pennsylvania strategy is thus a desperate one – polls show Obama in the lead by 10 to 13 per cent – and there is no chance that McCain would win the big cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It is what James Carville memorably called ‘the Alabama in between’ those two towns that Republicans hope to capture. The strategy is inherently a cynical one, pessimistic about American society in that it is wholly based on a belief that a significant number of rural voters are both racist enough to reject a black candidate out of hand and sufficiently ashamed of it not to confess their true intentions even to anonymous pollsters.

This is the famous ‘Bradley effect’, named after the 1982 Los Angeles mayoral race in which polls indicated that the high-profile civil rights era politician was on track to win. He subsequently lost and the five per cent gap was theorised as a section of white voters unwilling to admit that they wouldn’t vote for a black man.

There’s been little chance to test the Bradley effect since because it’s rare for either black or white politicians to run for districts where their ethnicity is a minority – and the only black senator currently is a man named Barack Obama. The actual polling from 1982 has been reanalysed, and the whole thing disputed six ways from Christmas. However, what can be said is that to believe in the Bradley effect you have to believe that nothing has changed in the US for a quarter century, that a mood that may have existed in a racially conflicted and violent city, directed towards a former militant black leader, would obtain in different times and different places.

It is the job of political professionals to be cynical and clear-eyed of course, but I wonder if they should make an effort to leave the Kool-Aid alone now. Speaking to people across Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, the west part of Virginia, the impression you get is what should be obvious – that those turning up for the Palin rallies – less so for McCain – are a self-selecting group, turning out for a degree of personal need, rather than political focus.

‘Are you working for the campaign?’ I asked people down the line at the Johnstown event and the answer, often as not, was ‘not really, I’m just here to see Sarah.’ What did they like about her? ‘She’s real, she’s one of us.’ Across the road separated by a line of police, a pro-Obama, union-organised demonstration had managed to turn out about 300 people to show that rural Pennsylvania did not consent to being univocally represented as ‘Palin country’. The protesters’ placards were printed up by the Service Employees International Union – the Palin supporters stuff tended to be handmade, with a degree of folk art. Some of the people across the divide knew each other. ‘You’re crazy Frank’, one union guy yelled as I was interviewing him. ‘Who’s the real Barack Obama?!’ the other guy yelled back. The union guy shook his head: ‘He’s always been a little obsessive.’

Indeed, the divide down that Johnstown road was the culture wars, each side having voted with its feet. Right up to the 1970s, these people would have been on the same side, on picket lines, in the Democratic fold. But as industry departed, and as key Supreme Court decisions Engel v Vitale (1962 – forbidding prayer in schools) and Roe v Wade (1973 – permitting abortion) spurred fundamentalist Christianity to political action, the lines of division and identity shifted. Western Pennsylvania, populated in the twentieth century by East European immigrants, was until recent decades a place of quiet religiosity. The film The Deer Hunter was made here, and its first part, the traditional Polish wedding, captures the feel of these towns exactly: the old diners with waitresses in coiffed hats; the onion domes of Orthodox churches among the rows of houses; the old machinery rusting in the bright air.

In recent decades, those more restrained and culturally embedded religious traditions were rolled over into literalist religions, offering direct salvation and a charge of meaning. In Johnstown, on the site of a former factory, a huge church of garish design with a mini-mall and office complex attached, had been plonked down in the middle of the town. It was proudly, ostentiously in opposition to the century-old wood and bricks of the place, a tabernacle of concrete and polished stone. ‘That place – man they’re the Jesus freaks’, said Ty, who, propping up the one – biker – tavern left in the centre of town, was obviously not a scientific sample.

There didn’t seem much doubt that many of the people in the Palin crowd were from this church or one like it. Every third sign was about ‘life’ – that abstract quality extracted from the living, which has become a centrepiece of religious biopolitics – and poking a microphone at any of them was like switching on a tape machine. ‘Obama voted to deny medical support to living births from late-term abortions!’ one woman shrieked at me before I’d even got a question out. He hadn’t, of course. Medical aid to live births is already mandated in Illinois, and Obama – while a state senator – had refused to vote for a cynically crafted bill that would have criminalised all late-term abortion under the guise of being an ‘aid to the newborn’ act.

Faced with the situation of an actual late-term abortion, I suspect most of these people would snap into a sort of residual good sense. But such rare and morally intractable situations have become a sort of gold standard of moral values for a fraction of the population – 20 per cent of Republicans (and around 13 per cent of independents and Democrats) believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, including the life or death of the mother. ‘Life’, this disembodied quality, has become their passion, and I can’t help but think that much of the obsession with it is the protest of a people whom modernity has passed by, whose communities were allowed to die when industry departed in the Seventies. It amounts to a raw cry against indifference. This is, after all, where ‘intelligent design’ met its Alamo, down the road in Dover, where a school board tried – and failed – to get stickers warning of the ‘flawed theoretical nature of evolution’ put on textbooks.

Though Johnstown is now reviving, with Northrup Grumman opening a new headquarters on the back of substantial tax breaks, co-ordinated reinvestment here 20 years ago could have sited value-added high-end manufacture in the vicinity, allowing skilled metalworkers to retrain and the region to prosper. If the Democrats had selected a Chomsky-Nader ticket it would be possible to view the pro- and anti- Palin forces slugging it out as having some sort of equal validity in terms of clashing philosophies. But given Obama’s centrism, his commitment to an imperial foreign policy, to very mild economic reform, it is impossible to regard McCain-Palin supporters and Obama supporters in Western Pennsylvania, equally. Even if you considered nothing other than healthcare, the bulk of this region’s Republican supporters are voting deeply against the best interests of themselves and their families.

God knows the Democrats have done everything in their power to piss off these people – from Obama’s comment to a San Francisco fundraiser that they cling to guns and God because they’re ‘bitter’, or Democrat John Murtha’s comment that they’re ‘racists’. (He later corrected it to call them ‘rednecks’. Thanks, John.) People don’t like being regarded as objects rather than subjects.

But people are also awake to false populism, and that is why the high-born playboy hero, professional politician John McCain, struggled until he added Palin to his ticket. And a more accurate picture is found beyond the rallies, which – despite their disdain for the media – increasingly play up to the cameras, relishing their role as outrageous outlaws. The act of queueing, the whole ‘heavy metal carpark’ film genre that’s emerged, has become as much a part of the event as the speech itself, which is usually a dull, standard effort.

Pennsylvania specialises in a sort of hybrid bar where you have to buy a pizza slice to get a drink; the formica tables end up loaded with dead pizza, which depresses me more than I can say. In these establishments, you find a more fluid and tentative set of opinions. In that last tavern, run by a black ex-pro football player (‘I’ve owned bars all over the country and I came back to my hometown and bought this and can I sell it? Man I’m trapped’), and his Hispanic girlfriend, elements of the McCain-Palin crowd drifted in after the rally. What did they want? They really didn’t know what they wanted. ‘Man we need better healthcare, but we gotta get government off our backs.’ ‘Healthcare like Canada.’ ‘Yeah, Canada’s got great healthcare.’ Inherited ideas of what America is conflict with plain common sense about things like the healthcare catastrophe. My cameraman, a lanky Australian with an Ibiza-style clubbers’ pilgrim-beard and bags under his eyes from overindulgence, comes in. ‘Hey Osama, it’s Osama’, a couple of people yell.

Are people here racist? It would be more accurate to say that they are clannish and parochial, in a non-perjorative sense of the word. These towns are 150 years old, founded in valleys ringed by hills, founded on the solidarity of mining and manual work, with strong collective traditions. In an earlier era, the syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and then mainstream Communism was well-represented here, often in tandem with Christianity. Like the fraught relations of blacks and Jews in big cities, the relations of black and white here are old class conflicts in the form of race.

Following the Civil War, freed slaves drifted north, as European immigrants arrived on the east coast. Both were competing for the same pure labour-power work, and much of the efforts of the early labour movement was devoted to trying to forge a unified movement across distrust and disdain.

That met with variable success, but, despite Carville’s ‘Alabama’ analogy, the idea that Western Pennsylvania is full of rednecks is ridiculous. Johnstown is not Mississippi, where people still talk openly of their fears of ‘miscegenation’. The McCain campaign is effectively trying to institute a division where very little exists, a further example of the destructive dimension that the man’s campaign has taken on, in desperation.

Indeed in the past few weeks, Sarah Palin has taken to calling the smalltown gatherings she was addressing the ‘real America’ – forgetting that whistle-stop tours ain’t what they used to be, and the CNN cameras follow you wherever you go. It was a stupid thing to say in an urbanised nation, especially for a candidate whose home town is basically an exurb of Anchorage. But it seems a measure of the Republicans’ greatest challenge – that they are selling their faithful a line, and their only possibility of victory lies in the hope that it might be true, and that they, in sufficient numbers will trade even the meagre improvement in their lives that Obama might represent, for signs and wonders, mavericks and heroes.

One such newfound hero is Joe Wurzelbacher, the Ohio trainee plumber who threw some questions at Obama during a walk-around. Though Joe – trying to buy a small business making less than $200,000 a year – would also benefit from Obama’s taxplan, he was a staunch values Republican, whose press conferences quickly revealed him to be a flat taxer. Joe rapidly became a motif of the McCain and Palin speeches, and then came on the road with them himself, until he started answering questions on Israel (‘Obama means “death to Israel”‘) and quickly disappeared from view (he appears to have been rewarded with a Nashville recording deal).

Recently, he’s been replaced by ‘Tito the Builder’, a Hispanic immigrant who owns a construction services company, having worked his way up as a janitor. Yet Tito’s effectiveness, as a pundit, was limited too by the fact that his business cleared less than 200 grand a year and would be eligible for Obama’s tax grant for new employees. Though he was more able than Joe to articulate a politics in which belief was separate to circumstance, the Republicans were becoming increasingly conscious that their army of spokespeople might appear to the wider public as living on… hope. And hope was off-message.

At the heart of this storybook campaign is the belief that everyone thinks like the people willing to queue for four hours to hear a political speech, and that is faith in the absence of proof indeed.

All through the tour of Western Pennsylvania, I couldn’t get Bruce Springsteen out of my head, and I only later realised that he named Johnstown in ‘The River’ – the great song about someone feeling a force of life beneath the limits imposed by traditions and circumstance (‘then I got Mary pregnant / and mister that was all she wrote / and for my nineteenth birthday / I got a union card and a wedding coat’). It was a cruel coincidence that the song pretty much described the future of Sarah Palin’s pregnant daughter and unwilling son-in-law, but I guess the important point was some larger force beneath things.

In Western PA, I felt a sense that many of these attachments might not survive greater tests, that these calls on tradition and patriotism may be a last desperate claim on people’s ability to define themselves against their own lives, and that something else may be in the offing.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and is covering the US election campaign for the independent online media service Crikey.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics USA


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