As the nation’s attention reluctantly turns to the political parties’ conventions, with their scripted suspense and stage-managed sentiment, it is important to keep in mind that these are phony representations of American political life. But the slick video profiles, the teary appearance of a beloved party elder — these are not what is most phony about the conventions.
This gathering of America’s civic tribes — and the reporters who love them — in separate cities for days of synchronized cheering and jeering is the embodiment of a great American myth: that the nation is divided into “two Americas,” polarized between “red” and “blue” camps that have fundamentally different values and moral outlooks. Each of the nominees will tell our allegedly divided country that he, and he alone, can manage to unite America for the next four years.
The idea that there is vast war over the moral and spiritual compass of the nation is a dramatic narrative, and it has dominated popular political analysis for nearly two decades. It makes for potent, inflammatory political commercials. It just doesn’t have the added virtue of being true.
This argument is not a new one, and perhaps the best aspect of Meyer’s piece is its presentation of names and sources to rely on for further study, ranging from James Davison Hunter, who popularized the ‘culture war’ term in the early nineties, through Morris Fiorina, whose book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America addresses and challenges that very concept (and has gone through updated editions — I should know, having ordered them for classes for Reserves!). Meyer sums it and the work of Arthur Brooks up with a simple deftness:
In fact, it’s because we agree on so much that our elections are so close. Fiorina’s “sorting” theory of voter behavior explains it with a certain simple elegance: Voters dislike both parties equally….Extremists, however rare, are becoming more common and, importantly, more rabid….Extreme liberals and extreme conservatives are now essentially dead to one another, as Tony Soprano might have put it….Increasingly, they are also the people who host television and radio talk shows, who publish blogs and who make civic noise.
This all fits in line with my belief that the problem with much political discussion and debate in the era of the Net in particular, but paralleled by the rise or reincarnation of a variety of media outlets seen to be ‘for’ a certain kind of voter (in some cases openly, in others in crypto-fashion), is this kind of ultrademonization, usually predicated on the belief that the ‘other side’ all thinks alike and are zombies that will follow the absolute worst impulses which can be imagined, and don’t really represent ‘the people’ in any event. This of course prompts those on the ‘other side’ to illustrate the differences and debates and details while in turn saying the first side are in fact the ones thinking alike etc. etc. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This isn’t meant to be a scientific pronouncement, merely an observation based on some years now of self-conscious image making and branding on the part of those larger groups and affiliations dedicated to political points of view. It still seems to hold true, though, and will continue to do so for some time to come. Meanwhile, the largest voting group in America remains the nonvoters — consider these numbers from the 2004 elections, where 4 out of 10 eligible voters did not vote at all in what was supposed to be a passionate national referendum on Bush’s presidency — and while the big premise of this election is that things are noticeably changed with the excitement Obama has generated in particular, let’s wait and see how it all plays out in the end. Emotionally I’m down with that claim; hardheadedly, I wonder a bit.
And I wonder because of something I’ve talked about in the past — what I see as the essential conservatism — not in a political sense, more in a vested-interest/not-upsetting-the-apple-cart sense — of the American populace. Meyer, perhaps less loadedly and more appropriately, uses the description “pragmatic, moderate and independent,” which also applies to a large extent, but not wholly so. This description would appear to limit itself to the voting populace, rather than the non-voting bloc I’ve indicated, whose reasons for nonparticipation vary but at base rely on the fact that America is an incredibly stable society and has been for a long, long time. Stable does not mean fair, equal to all, or perfect, I should underline. It’s something else altogether. But if a large enough group of the populace has the belief and continues to maintain it that can be summed up as ‘things are still ticking along so I’m going to concentrate on my own affairs because that’s all I can do,’ then that serves as a check for all the dreams and goals and stances on issues, from whatever side.
That may sound depressing or defeatist. It isn’t meant to be, rather it’s meant to be a recognition of things, about how despite the big issues and life-changing events, many things don’t change, or won’t change immediately. Almost seven years after 9/11 and its supposed changing of everything, it’s fascinating to see what hasn’t changed now, or how quickly certain beliefs reasserted themselves. I remember at the time — maybe even on the day itself, as some way of coldly distracting myself from the horror — telling others how the event would be used by all sides to regrind already finely-honed axes, and we’ve seen that happen pretty readily. It’s just one example of many.
But to end on a note that hopefully puts all these thoughts into some perspective — and to talk more about the subject line of this post! — something has struck me over these last couple of days, in the stories of people like Bertha Means from Texas, who remembered and fought against segregation and bigotry as openly practiced in her community, seeing in Obama’s speech the culmination of something amazing, an once-unexpected and now seemingly logical triumph. I could never claim that sense of seeing such change as it directly affected me, seeing a certain promise finally come true and possibly even truer in the future. Mine is the reflective dispassionate understated conviction of relative privilege in this society, tempered further by my age — her conviction is the ground-floor-up version, with barriers negotiated and fought against every step of the way, moving to greater and greater heights, to claim the American promise in full at last after decades of seeing that promise continue to develop due to her efforts. And she is far from alone.
Meanwhile, say what you want about Palin — personally I’m all fine with her trashing the oil-compromised feebs that ran her state beforehand, though given nearly everything else about her I can’t say I’d ever vote for her or the broken, self-loathing party she now must represent nationally, not that I was in any rush to do so to start with — the fact remains that in this country one hundred years ago, outside of a few states and territories she wouldn’t've been able to vote at all, while fifty years ago the idea that she might have been a vice-presidential candidate simply a pipe dream. Things have changed and the American experiment continues to unfold, and if they’re twenty-four years behind the times in nominating a woman near the top of the ticket — and allowing for the fact that Palin got her chance via choice and persuasion rather than slugging it out in the primaries, a chance and route Hillary Clinton could have feasibly achieved — then even so, someone, somewhere in the GOP recognized it was the 21st century. If they’re punting, they’re doing so figuring that their base will still cheer them on.
Conveniently enough, over on ILE John D. posted something a little bit ago that sums things up very handily on this front:
…it’s meaningful whether she’s a terrible candidate or not. Am I going to vote for the ticket because there’s a woman on it? No, of course not, she’s insane and McCain is awful. Does it have some historical weight for the right-leaning party – the one with a huge evangelical base, many sub-pockets of which genuinely believe that this country would be better off if women didn’t work at all – to put a woman in the #2 position? Of course it does. They haven’t done that before. It’s indicative of general progress toward eventually not being a total embarrassment among democracies in having only been led by men.
And so a convention to see through and then two months to go. It’ll be a hell of a ride, at the least.