Friday, November 5

Reality-Based Politics - I'm constitutionally unable to stick by my promise to forego writing about politics, so here's an excellent analysis I found on an alumni listserve recently. Authored by fellow Washingtonian Elaine Clisham, it beautifully summed up some of the things I've been thinking about since Tuesday:

When you look at the sea of red on the electoral map it's difficult not to conclude that the well-educated,well-traveled, intellectually curious, rational so-called Northeast Elite -- in other words, those of us in the reality-based community, as a New York Times article says -- just really don't matter to most of the country.Where once we were part of this country's foundation, we've increasingly become marginal and irrelevant.

This is a cataclysmic shift, in my opinion, and because we Northeast Eliters, again myself included, are always so convinced we're both right and essential to the proper operation of the world, we never saw it coming. Generally and for many years we have publicly treated radical Christian fundamentalists as Neanderthal flat-earthers. We've ridiculed their logic-free decisionmaking and we've dismissed them as stupid, benighted and in need of our patronizing enlightenment, and guess what? They're kinda tired of it. This election was their uprising, the tipping point at which they said, "We are a legitimate part of this society and this country, and we don't CARE that you think we're self-righteous, provincial, inward-looking, irrational and closed-minded. We're that way for a reason; we know we're right because our faith tells us so, and this time that's how we're going to vote and you're going to get your comeuppance." And that's exactly what happened.

I was listening to the PBS News Hour last night, in my Northeast Eliteness. The discussion inevitably turned to how the size and power of this conservative voting bloc managed to get by everyone until it was all over. The consensus was the following:

1. Since these people are obviously not Democrats, Democrats don't know them, have never bothered to find them worth their time and hence don't know how to talk to them or even accept them.

2. Democrats framed all their campaign arguments rationally in terms of policy, while Republicans framed all their arguments in terms of moral obligations and imperatives, thus creating the impression that they were the only candidates of faith and moral rectitude and offering that as an easy litmus test for these voters.

3. The media (of which I am indirectly a member) was utterly clueless about this group and had made no effort to explore or explain them with any respect or seriousness.

4. The ground game with this group was played completely out of view of both Democrats and the media -- in their churches. Sermon after sermon told these people to "vote your values," and because we weren't watching we were completely unprepared for the extent to which they went and did exactly that.

So -- in part we have ourselves to blame, for being self-absorbed and tone-deaf and never noticing that both the rules and the playing field had changed. That makes it pointless for us to wring our hands, and as a highly unscientific sample of one I will say that I'm just so completely exhausted from all the rancor that has marked this campaign that I can muster up absolutely no anger at all at the result. The win is a legitimate majority and must be treated that way. As I said, I don't believe this is the end of the world. Yes, the spotlight was kept on the issues of concern to social conservatives as away of mobilizing them to vote. However, I am less certain that they'll get everything they think they voted for, which is to say I believe that this was a campaign strategy and might not be too much more. In Bush's news conference today he made NO mention of a marriage amendment and was very eager to point out that there is no Supreme Court vacancy at the moment so he wasn't going to get into the discussion about who might fill one. I'm cautiously optimistic that those are fights he really doesn't want to engage in from the extreme right, because he does realize that 48% of voters didn't vote for him and his ego is big enough to make him want to leave a huge legacy not diminished by political impasse. He knows there's a line past which Democrats and even moderate Republicans will dig in their heels and he still does need a few of their votes to get the job done, so he'll pick his battles. I predict he'll save his political capital, to use his phrase, for the things he really believes will benefit ALL of us and allow history to show him in his best light -- tax reform, social security reform, the Iraq war. If he doesn't have any capital left to spend on socially conservative agenda items, that'll probably be OK with him. [Ed. - See Jonathan Chait in Friday's LATimes for a similar prediction.]

I also believe that as more and more Millennials reach voting age they will exert a greater influence over the debate on social issues. Since plenty of research has shown that this demographic group has no time for gender or ethnic stereotyping of any kind, the debate four years from now may well look very different, and for that we should all be hopeful (and busy registering every one of these folks as soon as they turn 18). However, that doesn't mean we don't have work to do in the next four years. I believe we need to acknowledge that white evangelical Protestants are a huge force that, for the moment, must be met on their terms, and we need to humble ourselves enough to make the effort to get familiar and comfortable with them. This is a group of people that is absolutely nothing like us in any way, but we need to learn to respect and honor them, not just treat them as anthropological specimens and patronize them for what we consider their backward Creationist views. No more can we cry, "How can they think that?" about such things as gay marriage and a woman's control over her body. We must accept that they don't "think" that, they BELIEVE it with the utmost assurance and their belief won't change, and we must start our strategy from that point. We'll be nowhere if we don't do it.

Coincidently, this wise missive reminded me of an interview ESPN happened to play during the half-time of Thursday night's NCAA football game. Sylvester Croom, the new coach of Mississippi State, talked about being one of the first blacks to play for Bear Bryant after he desegregated the Alabama team. He cited how sports helped change racial attitudes among his peers growing up in the South. Croom called it the "great equalizer." While white players may not have liked their black teammates -- or vice versa -- after a tough practice or hard-fought match-up on the grid iron, where each side took their lumps, they had no choice but to respect each other as players. I think Elaine's argument basically boils down to the same point: whatever our personal opinions of evangelicals, it's about time we learned to respect them as political equals. It's a message we've ignored for too long inside our liberal East (and West) Coast enclaves.