Thursday, June 05, 2008


I am notably poor at the horse-race aspect of elections, which is what many in the traditional news sources focus on. Polls, repositioning, effects on varying demographic groups – these interest me mildly, mostly because I have run across enough of it while looking for other information, and have some familiarity with the subject. But I am more interested in the ideas and characters of the candidates than in how well they are selling themselves.

I doubt that anything here is entirely original, but it is commentary you don’t usually see.

2008 = 1976

A McCain-Obama election is 1976 redux. This is Ford vs. Carter. Gerald Ford won the nomination even though he was not an especially conservative Republican. Jimmy Carter ran as a populist Democrat, but turned out in the end to be very liberal. So of the I-won’t-vote-McCain Republicans, I ask If you were voting in 1976, would you sit that one out, now, in retrospect? The counterargument that we got Reagan in 1980 because of it is a fair point. But I think there is over-reliance on the cause-effect angle there. If Ford had won, who would have run in each party in the 1980’s, and who would be the nominees? Would Carter have run again? Would Kennedy be the favorite? Mondale? Would Republican voters feel less need for contrast and be more likely to nominate the elder Bush? Would John Anderson have gone 3rd-party? We have no way of answering these questions – all our speculations are unreliable. We do know we got James Earl Carter as president and that was a terrible thing, then and later.

Racial Prejudice

We have learned some interesting things about prejudice, and if you follow the logic out, African-Americans may have inadvertently given evidence how disruptive even mild prejudice is. Much has been made of the 90% support Obama has garnered among black voters. The Obama and Clinton positions are not that different, so such overwhelming favoritism has led to accusations of racism – and to a lesser extent, sexism on the part of female voters supporting Hillary. The idea seems to be if they are essentially the same, the votes should break out about even in a color-blind, sex-blind electorate.

But this is the type of mild prejudice it’s hard to fault. If they’re the same anyway, why not give the nod to a brother or sister? Isn’t that how most of us would act in everyday situations? Sure, it’s a little unfair, but it’s not like we are supporting a significantly worse person just because they are a group-member. That latter is the prejudice we should be really worried about, right?

But look how quickly it has all gone bad, and turned into a harsher prejudice. When the dust has settled, a thoughtful African-American can bring this up as evidence that even mild prejudice gets away from you very quickly. White Americans tend to think “sure there’s prejudice, but not very much. You can work around it.” That is quite true, and black Americans prove the truth of it all the time. Yet now we see that working around it, getting past it in your own head is harder than it looks, for both giver and receiver. It would be arrogant, not to say silly, to think that this hardening of mild preference into angry prejudice is something that only happens to black people – or feminists.

Okay, I would prefer to think that, and find that my own groups are less prejudiced, or not prejudiced at all. But counter-evidence could be put up for any evidence I gave for the premise. The long-standing point of minority groups, that even a little prejudice can have large effects, now has more evidence. And it is an important Christian idea as well, that even a little sin can wreak great destruction. White people watch Jeremiah Wright and think “This accusation is just all out of proportion. This is nuts. I may not be perfect, or even that good a soul, but I know I don’t deserve this.” Again, that’s true. The anger of Wright and Moss certainly suggest personal issues – and the logs in their own eyes - are clouding their judgment. Yet if small sins can have larger effect than we thought, perhaps the whole matter becomes a little clearer.

In our own hearts we measure how little bad intent we had. In others, we measure the sin’s effect.

The Elusive Archetype

Hillary's supporters want her to be seen as a feminist icon, but it is feminists themselves who have been loudest in pointing out that Senator Clinton is a poor example of the breed. Obama has enormous African-American support, but his story is very unlike most AA stories, and he is rather a convert to blackness, ridiculous as that sounds. Only recently (2004) has he found that this post-racial thing is popular with a certain segment of the Democratic party. Early on, the worry was whether he was black enough. Now it is clear that his last twenty five years have been suffused with racial identity politics, and the post-racial part is mostly his first twenty years and the last two. Politicians often try to appear in different guises - I suppose Obama is no worse than many others in this.

John McCain seems at first look to be an archetypal conservative: older, somewhat irritable, reliably pro-life, his own man, and not only a veteran but a POW, for pete's sake. Perhaps his defections from conservatism are deplored all the more because it irritates conservatives that he should look so promising and be so often far afield.

So this year we have an ill-fitting feminist, an ill-fitting conservative, and a post-racial black guy who is neither all that black nor post-racial. For an electorate that wants, well, primary colors of red, yellow, blue in its primaries, we get exotic near-primaries instead: chartreuse, mango, and teal.


Anonymous said...

There might be another comparison: the 1972 Nixon/McGovern race. I remember it well. I was just 18 and was a delegate for Henry "Scoop" Jackson at my county's convention. It appeared that McGovern had mobilized everybody and that the revolution was about to happen. But in fact he had energized the-already-mobilized, who turned out to be noisier than their numbers warranted. I suspect that to the degree that Obama energizes the radical left, he'll put-off the American people. That's my guess. Carter, you'll recall, convinced most people that he was in fact just like them, conservative (because he was religious). Obama won't be able to pull that off. Having said that, however, the same American people who elected Ronald Reagan twice also elected Bill Clinton twice. So I guess nothing holds. Ignore my comments.

Ben Wyman said...

As Aslan would point out "no one is ever told what would have happened." Maybe our line of Presidential succession would have stayed the same with Carter as an anomaly, maybe it would've been wildly different. The important thing to get from this is that the "well, once the other candidate's in office, the Conservatives will rally themselves together and go back to the base" mentality is a bad one.

In politics, we should never give ourselves license to ignore a choice, hoping a better one comes along shortly. Every political move is a backlash to something, but we can't count on things to backlash the way you'd expect. McCain is a backlash to Bush - he feels more moderate and less divisive to the average American, he seems honest and plainspoken, and he's got tremendous military credibility. He's a Republican that people can rally behind after Bush.

Speaking to Republicans here - you shouldn't wait for a backlash against a Democrat, you already elected a Republican who became the most unpopular President since the advent of modern polling and now you nominated a Republican who seems clearly different than that candidate. If, after McCain is elected, you want a more conservative Republican, then you'll nominate one then, as backlash to our own choices, and that's how you get a more conservative figure in office. But the die is cast, and McCain is your candidate, vote for him. You can't count on all of America to respond to a President the way you would like.