There Is No Joy in Bushville
Thursday, November 16 2000, 3:36 PM
Despite the presence of my hippie friends in the South Austin Gospel Choir at the Bush Capitol rally, it's a safe bet Austin's hoi polloi stayed home from the event, keeping their distance from the button-down GOP enthusiasts. After all, the Bush administration is unloved in this town, not only by its overwhelmingly Democratic (if not exactly liberal) populace, but especially by the immense corps of state workers increasingly stressed by GOP starve-the-bureaucrat policies that have kept their wages depressed even as housing costs have tracked the Dow. State agencies are experiencing immense turnover, with many workers forced to move up to an hour away from the city purportedly built to house them. Austinites view the Bush regime much as an occupied people regard the foreign army in their midst. Here the foreigners are largely a crop of small-town Bubbas in town to reimpose their Confederate values on a city that struggles unsuccessfully to shake the Texas tradition of backwardness, authoritarianism, ignorance, corruption, and social inequality.
Texas did have one big effect on the contest. Here Bush learned the lesson that propelled him to his apparent victory: Nothing is less welcome in an American male than signs of intelligence, especially book learnin'. The candidate who had learned to abdicate his elite education and Washington pedigree through contempt for intellect and a deplorable inability to speak coherent English was well positioned to take charge of an America increasingly evolving in the direction of Texanism: macho swaggering, hatred of intelligence, and contempt for the weak and pusillanimous.
It amazed many national pundits that Gore did so poorly, citing the rational factors of a strong economy, a country more or less at peace (interventions in Iraq and Colombia being kept quiet), and his willingness to hand more bennies to the AARP generation, a cohort whose lifelong dedication to socialist handouts for themselves but severe market discipline for anyone younger should have made Gore a shoo-in when he promised to bill younger people still more so seniors could be issued cheap pills. Yet, at least in crucial Florida, the seniors went more for Bush, a man likely to ruin Social Security while they're still alive. Similarly, military personnel seem overwhelmingly to favor Vietnam coward Bush over the Democrats, who achieved a goodly pay raise for servicemembers. But often the electorate ignores its rational self-interest. Rather, in the television era, votes are swayed by style, charisma, marketing, and artifice rather than calculations of policy or political alliance.
To me it is amazing Gore didn't lose in a landslide. As Robert Coles has shown in The Political Life of Children, political reactions are formed in childhood based on archetypes and symbolism; in the absence of political education, these reactions tend to persist in adulthood. Coles interviews Belfast Protestants whose identification with the U.K. is based less on self-interest than on a mystical identification with the Royal Family as surrogate parents. Belfast Catholics affirm loyalty unto death to their "father," the Pope.
In American culture, few stereotypes are more persistent than the equation of intellectualism with sissyhood in men. Other things being equal, voters will flock to the more macho Presidential candidate. That's why Clinton's popularity rose once his philandering was revealed; he was now perceived as a stud, a seducer. That's why Gore wanted to share a podium with Bush for the debates — it emphasized Gore's height and bulk advantage, usually enough to guarantee a Presidency in itself. And it's why Dukakis was doomed the minute he got photographed in a tank too big for him to fill.
Though Gore played football and went to war, his inability to conceal his intelligence marked him in voters' unconscious minds as a pantywaist who spent too much time in class, not enough swilling hard stuff and hustling coeds. Bush, on the other hand, was long schooled in Texan machismo. When pundits expected his verbal gaffes to mark him as unqualified, instead the bloopers raised his stature as a guy too tough to crack a sissified book. When they expected his gleeful signing of death warrants would damn him as cruel, instead each execution raised his poll numbers among a population vicariously thrilled whenever a beloved white superhero effortlessly destroys those vilified as subhuman. Compared to Bush's utter dominance over society's perceived enemies proven by his ability to obliterate them, Gore's mere verbal support for the death penalty was no match. It was obvious which male was alpha, which was beta.
The real question is why Gore tied Bush rather than getting trounced. One answer lies in the extraordinary manipulations of this election by irresponsible media. Most "analysis" stuck to who was ahead, not the candidates' policy differences, distinctions further blurred by both campaigns, notably in the second debate wherein both candidates seemed to have no disagreements. The system manufactured a pair of candidates with nearly identical bios: both WASP sons of political privilege, both with elite educations, both about the same age, both happily married, both devout Christians, both from the shallow South. And television, devoted to keeping the race close so viewers would keep watching, cunningly deployed a series of gotchas meant to drive down the numbers of whichever guy seemed to be gaining. Marketing techniques proved so successful that they engineered a virtual tie. The candidates had been marketed as indistinguishable, and the results showed it.
The most watched local contest was a ballot initiative to build a light rail system, which went down to narrow defeat, killing plans for any new transportation besides more highways. Not only does the failure forfeit federal aid, it also marks the large rail fund accumulated by Capital Metro for diversion to new freeway construction.
Rail died of several causes. Cap Metro has a horrible reputation for inefficiency, aggravated by the use of transportation funds to cover construction such as sidewalks that in other jurisdictions would be the responsibility of the Department of Public Works. (Austin's got nothing on San Antonio, though, which looted its transit funds to build the Alamodome, a money-losing fiasco that resulted in service cuts for disabled riders.) Also, the redesign of the proposed system to run trains along what are now car lanes led to the specter of even worse traffic snarls caused by trains with no one riding them. Unlike Dallas, which just voted to expand its el, Austin now will continue its policy of the last decade: endless blather with zero results. Now Austinites can return to what they do best — pretentiously congratulating themselves on creating the next Monterey, California while assiduously building the next Monterrey, Mexico.
Whereas self-proclaimed environmentalists have gotten to the City Council by large majorities in recent years, the public may finally be growing jaded with an environmentalism that consists mainly of defending a swimming hole called the Barton Springs Pool while ignoring the devastating decline of the built environment from Texas' best planned city to one of America's ugliest sprawls in a mere decade.
Faux environmentalism in the person of the cynical and manipulative Mayor Watson was dealt a blow when voters rejected an initiative to hand currently undeveloped lakeside city parkland over to private builders for a golf-based subdivision. Even people as self-deceptive as Austinites weren't fooled by the mayor's attempt to paint golf links as an environmental project. And, despite being in denial about the lethally metastasizing strip malls, fast-food joints, and ticky-tacky subdivisions, voters appeared to reject the rhetoric of "much needed development for East Austin." Even Austin voters by now have noticed that no part of town needs any more "development" (i.e. clueless construction on a massive scale).
Little remarked was the city's latest environmental horror: a serious sewage overflow into Onion Creek, which flowed into the already reeking Colorado toward the sea. One wonders if the citizens' chronic tendency to pat themselves on the back for being green as the air turns deeper and deeper gray will persist a decade hence, when what remains of the city's skyline will be dominated by a snarl of overhead freeways, on the Houston model. One wonders how long a city whose arrogance and self-delusion are famous even by Texas standards can keep calling itself beautiful as it instantiates the incredible Texan capacity for defecating in one's own bed.
Lindsey Eck is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.