The main technique, worthy of Machiavelli, was on lachrymose display in the Terri Schiavo case. It consists of dangling The Bait Infallible—"values"—in front of the people to distract them from the triumphs of bought government. From, say, a bankruptcy "reform" bill that will make it harder for families to escape debts often piled up faultlessly—through uninsured medical bills, the loss of a job, the breakup of a marriage, or the care of an aged parent. The bill makes no exceptions for medical emergencies, which account for more than half of all bankruptcies, or for debts incurred by National Guardsmen serving in Iraq or, incredibly, for soldiers wounded in Iraq. The Republican Senators dared to vote down these Democratic amendments to give the House the "clean" bill demanded by Tom Delay (himself far from clean), confident in the power of "values" to hold the pillar of the oligarchy in place.
Little is new under the political sun. Distraction was a mainstay of Republican electioneering after the Civil War. Waving the "bloody-shirt" of the war kept the northern electorate stirred up against the rebel South and "the party of rebellion." This gave cover to the regnant Republican big business cabal. Behind it they hiked the protective tariff, gave public lands away to mining, lumber, and cattle syndicates, lavished land grants and subsidies on railroads, and otherwise picked the people's pockets. Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton, the Ann Coulter of the Gilded Age, waved the bloody shirt with a vengeance:
Every man who labored for the rebellion in the field, who murdered Union prisoners by cruelty and starvation, who contrived to bring about civil war in the loyal states, who invented dangerous compounds to burn steamboats and Northern cities, who contrived hellish schemes to introduce into Northern cities pestilence of yellow fever, calls himself a Democrat...
Northerners voted their memories, and got the tariff. Today red-staters vote their "values" and get the bankruptcy bill, oil drilling in the Alaska wilderness, tort "reform," and soon an energy bill upon which, in 2003 alone, the energy industry spent $387 million in lobbying fees and millions more in campaign contributions.
Oligarchs, Aristotle instructed, "should take, or at least pretend to take, the opposite line, by including in their oath the pledge: I shall do no harm to the people." Such pretence was not for Mark Hanna, the mining and city traction magnate who made William McKinley President. A rare candid politico, Hanna left the buncombe to McKinley and put the maxims that guided Republican politicians then and still in plain speech. "Some men must rule," he was quoted as saying. "The great mass of men must be ruled." To a fellow politician he wrote: "You have been in politics long enough to know that no man in public office owes the public anything." Under McKinley, he promised, the United States would be "a business state." When, past midnight on November 3, 1896, news reached an elite Chicago club that McKinley had defeated W. J. Bryan, who shook the pillars of the post-civil war oligarchy with a campaign of democratic reform and economic populism, the members were elated. "One of the world's great merchants started the old boyhood game of 'follow the leader,'" a journalist wrote. "He was joined by bank presidents, merchants, Chicago's foremost men; they went over sofas, chairs, tables, up-stairs and down, and wound up dancing in each other's arms." Downstate, in Springfield, the news broke sixteen-year-old Vachel Lindsay's heart. In his epic poem "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan," quoted in part below, Lindsay memorialized that moment:
Election night at midnight:
Boy Bryan's defeat.
Defeat of western silver.
Defeat of the wheat.
Victory of letterfiles
And plutocrats in miles
With dollar signs upon their coats...
Defeat of the young by the old and the silly.
Defeat of tornadoes by poison vats supreme.
Defeat of my boyhood, defeat of my dream.
Where, the aging poet asks,
...is McKinley, Mark Hanna's McKinley
His slave, his echo, his old suit of clothes?
...Where is Hanna, bull-dog Hanna?
...Where is that boy, that Heaven-born Bryan,
That Homer Bryan who sang from the West?...
It is easy to recognize our Mark Hanna—he is reportedly Karl Rove's hero; and Rove's McKinley. But where, oh where, is our Bryan?