Resentment in partisan politics
Reacting to this post, Reihan Salam (who majors in good blogging and minors in even better dancing) says there is enough fear, resentment, and moral arrogance to go around. He says arguing over who’s the bitterest of all is "unedifying." Your honor, I object!
I wrote said post mere hours after Romney assaulted my logic (Throw out the big-government liberals and elect John McCain and Sarah Palin!), Giuliani groped my lizard brain (I’m sorry Barack Obama feels that her hometown isn’t … cosmopolitan enough.), and Sarah Palin lied to my face (I told the Congress "thanks, but no thanks," for that Bridge to Nowhere.). Maybe my nerves were still jangled.
But why should it be unedifying to inquire which party is more driven by a sense of grievance? It would be odd if it turned out all political coalitions partook equally of it, or if disparate resentments did not shape the political landscape.
I was at both conventions. One can only guard against confirmation bias and the rest of it so much, of course. But I heard far, far more in the way of positive plans and visions in Denver. There was plenty of anger over Bush’s misgovernance, and plenty of hard hits on John McCain, but almost without fail they began with a nod to his honorable character. They were about his support for the war, policy flip-flips, and Rovian (Schmidtian?) campaign. Mostly the Dem crowd went wild for restoring respect for the Constitution, expanding health insurance, and getting out of Iraq. Hope, change, a new direction, blah blah.
What fired up the otherwise subdued crowd in St. Paul was dripping condescension and contempt directed toward Obama — his experience, his style, his character. I mean for f***sake, they mocked community organizing!
Giuliani got them revving with alpha-male hazing, but what really drove them wild was Palin’s thrilling new brand of mean-girl contempt delivered with small-town affect. Biden gets it just right:
Man, they’re like the kids you know when you went to school and you were very proud of the new belt or the shoes you had, and there was always one kid in the class who said, "oh, are they your brother’s?" Remember that kid? That’s what this is reminding me of. "Oh, I love your dress, was that your mother’s?" You know what I’m talking about.
I get that some conservatives are genuinely angry about the attacks directed at Palin these past few weeks. For my part, though, I just didn’t see much of the stuff they’re exercised about. Am I just not reading the right blogs? The brief hubbub about her pregnancy and Bristol’s has receded to the background. What I see now is a whole panoply of unanswered questions about her record and, more to the point, her honesty.
Honesty is the thing. If you have a good case to make to the country, why do you need to sell it with lies? Palin has repeated the Bridge to Nowhere lie 23 times as of yesterday morning; she’s still claiming to oppose earmarks when she proved wildly gifted at attracting them. The campaign keeps saying Obama will raise taxes, when his plan will lower them for 95 percent of taxpayers. They keep saying Obama’s healthcare plan would put government bureaucrats in charge of doctor choice. I can’t remember a campaign repeating so many specific, widely debunked falsehoods so unashamedly.
The latest in deceptive dirt is a new education ad where McCain attacks Obama for supporting a program that would add disease-prevention material to Illinois sex ed curriculum. (Learning about sex before learning to read? gasps the ad.)
When you want to appeal to people’s better nature, you tell them the truth. When you want to stoke their baser nature, you lie to them. Good governance and policy are not built on lies.
I’m struck by this notion that there is only one side in the culture wars — or rather that only one side ever makes any transgressions, while the other side is saintly and invincibly innocent.
I didn’t say that, and nobody thinks it. It’s more accurate to say that only one side is fighting the culture wars — or to be more fair, only one side has it perpetually at the center of their politics. It is the right that shadowboxes elites day in and day out. Dems are focused this year on getting out of Iraq, getting healthcare reform passed, and getting a climate/energy plan in place. Republicans are focused on the fact that McCain was once a POW and that Dems are citified snobs who hate small town America. (Said Palin, We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.) Oh, and drilling.
These are not two sides of the same fight, they’re different fights. One’s a culture war, one’s a governing agenda.
If it is "cosmopolitan" to maintain that credible plans for economic renewal, clean energy, and smarter foreign policy matter more than cultural identifiers like number of children, experience in combat, or ability to hunt moose, then color me cosmopolitan. Whatever may be true historically, it’s hard to argue that the right is not more motivated by tribal resentments and anxieties this year. Since that is shaping the political contest, it seems worth pointing out.
(For this record, I am keenly aware of the attractions of rootedness and tradition. Seems to me they’re being destroyed in part by the very economic forces conservatives celebrate and seek to unfetter. But that’s an argument for a different too-long post than this one.)