Lesson From New Hampshire: The Powerlessness of the American Citizen

Hanging out in New Hampshire for the run-up to the primary is a powerful education in how undemocratic the American political system is.

Corporate-funded journalists run around, jockeying for access to corporate-funded candidates, who, in the case of this Republican field, spent roughly $53 million campaigning in two states, both of which are over 90 percent white, where about 350,000 people voted. And that leaves out the president, whose re-election campaign has already spent $27,115,268 and has $61,403,711 left over. Around 70,000 people have voted for him.

At the Radisson Hotel in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, dozens of news outlets – radio and television – set up ad hoc studios, and candidates are stewarded by self-important flocks of staffers through a swarm of media personalities, who produce an unrelenting stream of flashes and questions. When the candidates – rich, white, male, heterosexual (to the best of our knowledge) – arrive before the microphones and cameras they seek, they proceed to recite lines they've recited thousands of times before.

I didn't manage to see Ron Paul Monday morning at the hour-long breakfast meet and greet he had planned because media hounded him out, one reporter allegedly going so far as to physically accost his wife Carol. I didn't manage to see Newt Gingrich later that day, because what his web site advertised as a town hall turns out to have been an event closed to all except the corporate press and employees of an energy corporation. And I heard John Huntsman say Tuesday that the primary issue creating problems in America was a lack of trust, the antidote to which would be a John Huntsman presidency.

Meanwhile, the White House announced that Jack Lew, whom Citigroup lavished with a $950,000 bonus a few months after TARP, would take over as Obama's chief of staff, a job whose previous occupant, JP Morgan Chase executive Bill Daley, had taken over for Rahm Emanuel, who has spent time on Goldman Sachs' payroll. The only Republican candidate who saw fit to mention this development on Election Day, Rick Perry, boasts a campaign whose top contributor so far is Ryan, LLC., a firm that helps the most powerful corporations weasel out of paying their taxes.

At dozens of campaign stops and headquarters over the last week and mere feet from almost every candidate, Occupy New Hampshire protesters eschewed the pro forma politeness everyone extends to the proposition that this arrangement represents the greatest democracy in the history of the world. They interrupted speeches, staged bits of street theater and made a general nuisance of themselves, exposing the candidates, shaming the complacent press and demanding that their fellow citizens rise up against the corporate dominance of elections. At every stop, they were denigrated, shouted down, ridiculed and confronted by police.

The only candidate who poses any threat to the existent power structure is Paul, whose central political drive is to replace a government which helps to generate suffering with one that is blind to it and powerless to stop it. I attended the Paul victory party, the victory in question being his loss by only 16 points to Mitt Romney, the man who accumulated something like $250,000,000 in part by laying off thousands of workers.

The Paul supporters I spoke to by and large sounded like the occupiers. “This is a grassroots movement against the establishment,” said Sarah, 43, of Bedford, New Hampshire. “Dr. Paul stands for peace, liberty and revolution.” And indeed, at a Paul rally, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this candidacy really in propelled by a citizenry committed to a consistent set of radical principles. Paul's citation of the Soviet Union's downfall after invading Afghanistan as a set up for his rallying cry to dismantle the military-industrial complex drew huge applause from the adoring crowd.

But the radical positions are buried deep within an almost bafflingly reactionary ideology. There was much talk in Paul's speech of “demanding our freedoms back again” and promising to “restore freedom to this country.” The primary instrument of un-freedom, in the eyes of Sloan, 24, who had traveled to New Hampshire from Rhode Island to campaign for Paul, is “the illegal, unconstitutional, disgusting federal reserve. What we obviously need to do is go back on the gold standard.”

The idea of restoring freedoms by returning to 1912, before the creation of the Fed (when women did not have citizenship rights) or before Lincoln's removal of the gold standard (when black people were chattel slaves) didn't seem to strike anyone as dubious. Nor did Paul's assertion that the sole instrument for wealth inequality was inflation and not, perhaps, the deregulated financial sector. In fact, it is widely agreed among Paul supporters that one helpful solution is to deregulate further. “I'm for the free market and free market banking,” Paul said in an interview last year, “therefore you would have no rules against banks being involved in commercial and investment banking.”

Megabanks lending on idle speculation grew to account for more than 40 percent of corporate profits by the time of 2008's meltdown and credibly threatened to plunge the entire world's economy (linked by Paul-championed free trade) into a generation of squalor. Either there is implied insurance in a system like that or Paul's supporters assess market freedom as so important that the widespread poverty it would produce would be acceptable. But the acceptability of suffering was never mentioned by Paul or his supporters. “We believe that a strictly voluntary economy would produce greater equality,” affirmed Sloan.

Paul also doesn't campaign on his characterization of the climate crisis as “the greatest hoax … around.” One supporter who declined to give me her name, but offered that she is a New Hampshire public school teacher, not only wasn't aware of this position of Paul's, but didn't believe me when I told her it was. She had a difficult time, though, describing how a strictly voluntary economy would reverse the climate crisis.

It comes down to the protection of liberty, which is a buzzword that dripped from the tongues of everyone who introduced Paul and generated massive applause among supporters. But there lurked the sense that the only force from which people need liberty is the government, and not, for instance, a perfidious corporate class, prepared to keep the citizenry in a state of debt peonage, reduce millions of families to Dickensian poverty and obliterate entire species and ecosystems, and would do these just as vigorously under an even shabbier regulation regime.

The DJ at the Paul party pumped Kool & the Gang's “Celebration” while attendees waited for the candidate to speak. The same song was featured in the same capacity at Romney's event the previous night. That encomium to the recklessness and lavishness of the disco era seemed almost to mock a group of voters who, however jubilant on Election Day, are in the midst of learning the powerlessness of the American citizen in the current political calculus. That is the lesson my time in New Hampshire reinforced, moment after sick-making moment.

Celebrate good times. Come on.