Those who've been reading this site for a while know that I'm not a
huge fan of Barack Obama. Though his record is fairly progressive for
an American politician, from the moment he was launched onto the national
stage his rhetoric has revolved around the notion of bridging the divide
between Red and Blue America. And that's one bridge to which I would say,
as Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin says on the many occasions
when she's lying about
her record, "Thanks but no thanks."
Every election in my adult lifetime has played out the same way: Republicans
argue that Red America is better than Blue America, and Democrats cry that, no,
we're not so different! Republican political ads
spew insults —
or at least epithets that
Democrats hold out their hands and coo that
"There is no them — there is only us." I am so sick of this. There's
a reason the guy who said that moved to New York after his presidency instead
of back to Arkansas: New York is better than Arkansas. Massachusetts is
better than Texas. Chicago is better than Wasilla, Alaska. Saying so might
mean losing votes in Arkansas and Texas and Alaska, but those states are lost
causes (in more ways than one); Republicans certainly show no compunction about
slamming San Francisco and Boston and Vermont, and they're the ones winning
elections. And seriously — if you don't think that the blue states
are better — if you're not going to try to make the country look
more like Cambridge and less like Crawford — why should I vote for you?
1) Obama '04: a rebuttal
Barack Obama's speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention made him
a star... but it was more of the same. "The pundits like to slice and dice our
country into red states and blue states," he said, "but I've got news for them."
- "We worship an awesome God in the blue states"
I don't. On the contrary, I find this ritualistic fealty to an imaginary
deity disturbingly atavistic, and want a government that will do everything
it can to keep this delusion from infecting the public sphere. It's not a
coincidence that I've chosen to live in the jurisdiction of the circuit court
that ruled, correctly, that coercing students to recite a pledge containing
the phrase "under God" is unconstitutional, nor that I've chosen to live in
a House district represented by the one avowed atheist in the entire Congress.
- "and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries
in the red states."
And yet one of Sarah Palin's first acts as mayor of Wasilla was to try to
fire the local librarian who wouldn't agree to ban books — and Palin
is the red staters' new hero.
- "We coach Little League in the blue states"
I live in a blue state called California, which is well known for its
wonderfully terrible sports fans — people show up to games late and leave
early, only pay attention when the local teams are winning, and don't really
live or die with the results. Why? Because we have better things to do:
we have great restaurants to go to, galleries and museums to visit, outdoor
activities made possible by the beautiful weather all the year round. That's
part of what makes us better than places where the sum total of the local
culture is how the Cornhuskers fare at a violent, meaningless game.
- "and yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states."
Sure. Heck, you've got gay
senators from the red states cruising airport bathrooms and
from the red states IMing teenage pages about their masturbatory habits.
And yet year after year gay-baiting is a key plank of Republican strategy,
both tactically, by sticking "marriage amendments" onto state ballots, and
more directly, by
— or, as
Rudy Giuliani put it, "cos-mo-paaaaah-li-tan."
But cosmopolitan is good. Cultured is good. Secular is
good. Denying these virtues is not the way to win my vote. But
Democrats don't really care about my vote; they're aiming at Middle America,
where these virtues are conspicuously absent. So they sling the God talk
like Obama, run on their military records like John Kerry, play up their
hardscrabble backgrounds like Joe Biden and John Edwards... and none of
it works. Why not? Paul Krugman
recently pointed out that "much of the anger on the right is based
not on the claim that Democrats have done bad things, but on the perception
— generally based on no evidence whatsoever — that Democrats
look down their noses at regular people. Thus Mr. Giuliani asserted that
Wasilla, Alaska, isn't 'flashy enough' for Mr. Obama, who never said any
such thing. And Ms. Palin asserted that Democrats 'look down' on
small-town mayors — again, without any evidence." Of course there
isn't any evidence; it's hard to look down your nose at people when you're
kissing their feet. So why do the red staters feel as though blue staters
are looking down at them? Because they know they deserve it.
Democrats can avoid saying that the red states are inferior to
the blue ones as much as they like. But the red staters will continue
to hear it. They'll hear it because the voices inside their
heads are saying it. And those voices are correct. This makes them
angry, and they lash out. Ten years ago, I was floored when a direly
unfunny SNL alum named Adam Sandler suddenly scored a massive hit with
a movie called The Waterboy, in which he played a mouth-breathing
loser who becomes a star linebacker, fueled by uncontrollable rage at the
thought of people making fun of him. At the time I couldn't understand
why anyone would watch that, but now I get it. It spoke to people.
After all, it's what vast numbers of American voters do at the ballot box.
2) Sarah Palin's America
John McCain's people selected Sarah Palin as his running mate to
reassure the red staters that, yes, a McCain Administration would indeed
keep the progressive half of the nation under the thumb of its backward
half. They then hastily threw together some words for her to read off a
Teleprompter, a skill at which she proved to have improved somewhat since
her stint looking crosseyed at a camera while reporting on
"LOTS OF DOGS".
Here's the money quote, in which they have her
quote a guy who wished Franklin Roosevelt had been assassinated:
- "We grow good people in our small towns."
Of all the innumerable lies that have come out of Sarah Palin's mouth,
that might be the most preposterous. Wasilla, Alaska, is a
terrible place, and Sarah Palin is a terrible person. And the red
staters know that. It's why they've climbed aboard. It's
how they know she's one of them.
What kind of people do places like Wasilla grow? Well, for one thing,
it's hard to get off to a good start in life when your
drunken stepfather is tasing you, bro. Child abuse happens everywhere,
but some cultures foster it more than others. When parents exert total
hegemony over the household without any kind of societal check, it opens
up the potential for a real horror show — as the Palin family has
demonstrated. Barack Obama tried to provide that societal check in Illinois
with a program to teach schoolchildren how to avoid sexual abuse —
and a McCain/Palin ad this week actually slams him for it. But given
that an Anchorage judge ruled in 2005 that Sarah Palin herself was guilty of
child abuse, I suppose it's not so surprising that she and her ilk are so
afraid of daylight: it makes it that much harder for "our small towns" to
keep their ugly little secrets.
It's also hard to get off to a good start in life when your schools are
terrible. The "back to basics" curriculum pushed by the conservatives
aggressively steers students away from anything that might constitute
critical thinking — a generation of citizens who can think is not
in the Republicans' best interest — and is instead designed to
give students the tools they need to (barely) pass moronically easy
standardized tests. And if it turns out that too many of them are
failing, no problem: just do what Bush's Texas did and
test easier. History and government classes have been rendered so
worthless that people like Sarah Palin can graduate
not knowing what the vice president does and
thinking that the Founding Fathers wrote the Pledge of Allegiance.
Meanwhile, in your science classes, you learn that the principle of
natural selection that forms the basis for the entirety of modern biology
is on equal footing with the notion that an old man in the sky pointed
a finger and, blammo, LOTS OF DOGS. And you certainly don't learn
anything about sex.
But all the Baptist churches in the world and all the ludicrous
"abstinence-only" programs you can buy aren't going to thwart a basic
human drive. So when you get a little older, instead of having fun
responsible sex like a healthy seventeen-year-old should, you have sex
furtively. Because you live in a red state, your partner is a
"fuckin' redneck" who likes to "go camping and hang out with the boys,
do some fishing, shoot some shit and just fuckin' chillin' I guess."
And really, what else is there to do in a town whose cultural offerings
are limited to gravel pits and Wal-Marts? Places like Wasilla, Alaska,
don't "grow good people"; they take potentially good people and stunt
them. It doesn't always work; some good people make it out. But they aren't
good because they come from Middle America. They're good despite
coming from Middle America. But I digress — let's finish the story!
Your swain says "I don't want kids," and warns that "Ya fuck with me I'll kick
ya ass," but of course you do fuck with him, and since neither of you knows
what you're doing, he knocks you up. You then somehow "decide" to have the
baby even though everyone around you is working to have that choice taken away
from you. So now it falls to you to "grow" the next generation of "good
people" — and with parents like the two of you, the cycle seems
doomed to continue...
...unless, of course, your mother gets elected vice president and you get
to spend the rest of your life in a bubble of privilege. Then maybe you
turn out less like Sarah Palin than like Cindy McCain, hoping that your $300,000
outfits and bottles of sweet, sweet Vicodin will dull the pain of being married
to a man with a violent temper who calls you a trollop and a cunt, losing touch
with reality to such an extent that you think everyone gets around by private
plane and buying so many houses that your husband loses track. After all, the
upscale parts of Middle America are a wasteland too.
3) God save the Queen?
Eight years ago I thought that the biggest problem in the US was that the
electoral system didn't accurately represent the will of the voters. Now I
think the biggest problem in the US is that the electoral system accurately
represents the will of the voters. The past eight years have been a disaster
for America economically, socially, diplomatically and militarily. About 45%
of us have been horrified. A tad under 30%, the Bush dead-enders, have cheered
on our downfall, because they're so backward they think backward is forward.
These are the ones who have chosen the Republicans as their team, and will
oblingly support that team no matter how intellectually dishonest it requires
them to be — pretending to be offended at the phrase "lipstick on a pig,"
for instance. That leaves a bit over a quarter of the electorate: who are they?
They're the ones who voted for Bush, but eventually Bush got boring, and Obama
seemed cool, so they thought maybe they'd go for him this time, but then US
Weekly had a story about this Palin lady and now they're thinking they might
go with her. They get tagged with various labels: "independents," "swing voters,"
"low-information voters." What they really are is incredibly stupid. I mean,
yes, I think it's stupid to support the Republican Party. But it's a whole other
level of stupid not to know whether you support the Republican Party. You
cannot have a functioning democracy in which these people play such a key role.
And this is the heart of the problem. In election after election, Democrats act
as though this is a functioning democracy. And it's just not.
I've been dating a Canadian for a couple of years now and have recently been
seriously considering moving to Canada. I'd never really taken the prospect
very seriously before; I love the Bay Area and when I moved back here I'd
hoped it would be for good. But watching the effect Sarah Palin has had on
the presidential race has started to change my mind. Not just in the "eeeagh,
I cannot live in a country with this cretin as vice president" sense —
though it's beginning to look as though McCain managed to find someone who
Cheney. But one of the sticking points I ran into whenever I thought of
moving north was simply the prospect of living in a monarchy. I'm supposed to
live in a country that has a queen on its money? Really? That was a
deal-breaker — until now. I get it now. I didn't really get it
before, even though I've told stories that should have made it clear. Here's
one you may remember: in 2000 I heard a woman say, in all seriousness, that she
was voting for Bush because "his mom's a tough old lady and if he gets out of
line she'll set him straight." I couldn't believe my ears. What, like the
president's about to sign a tax bill that'll cripple the economy for generations
to come, and Granny comes in a side door and hits him with an umbrella? At the
time, what I got out of this was that too many people think in metaphor —
thinking of the country as one big family and of voting for president as picking
a dad. I still think that's right. What I now realize is this: Everyone's
interested in the leaders of the country. Intelligent people are interested in
the actual functioning of the government, what policies various candidates plan
to put into practice, how those policies will affect the lives of the citizenry...
but there just aren't that many intelligent people. A lot of people are stupid.
To them the government is just a sort of reality show. To them politicians are
just celebrities who show up in different timeslots from the actors and sports
stars. The beauty of constitutional monarchy is that it gives the stupid people
their reality show, but farms it out to a powerless royal family so the real
government can get on with its work. And you do have to give the stupid people
their reality show. If you don't, they will make the real government into the
reality show. In Sarah Palin, Middle America has its Princess Di — the
problem is that in the American system, Princess Di would have been second in
line to make decisions that affect hundreds of millions of people. Which is
almost as scary a prospect as Sarah Palin being second in line to make those
decisions. Or John McCain being first.
Democrats always say that if they can just steer the conversation back to the
issues, they'll win. But I read a lot of political journalism, and one
observation that comes up in article after article is that low-information
voters do not realize that government actually affects our day-to-day
lives. They do not connect the experience of sitting around the kitchen table
trying to pay the bills with the earnest men on the television set talking
about sitting around the kitchen table trying to pay the bills. You can't
reach them that way. The Republicans understand this; McCain's campaign
manager came flat out and said,
"This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view
of what people take away from these candidates." That's exactly right.
The key segment of the voting population is voting for a royal family —
and Democrats are all busy running for prime minister.
4) The incredible erratic adventures of Stiffy McCain
And so they cede the one point they cannot cede! During the Democratic
convention I read lots of commentators talking about the deft judo Obama
and Biden had deployed on John McCain, praising him for his courage as a
POW and his fundamental decency as a human being, only to turn around and
tear into him on the issues. Hey, it worked for Bill Clinton in 1996! But
Clinton could afford to be magnanimous to Bob Dole, because Clinton was ahead
by a huge margin and Dole was already perceived as a cantankerous fossil.
Obama has no such luxury. Tell voters that your opponent is a war hero and
an honorable man, and before you can even get to your policy disagreements,
you've already sold a huge chunk of your audience on the other guy.
And the nice things they're saying aren't even true! John Sidney McCain III
is a terrible human being. He is a juvenile delinquent who became a senile
delinquent. He spent his school years picking fights and his time at the
naval academy racking up hundreds of demerits. His record didn't merit a
career as an officer, but as the son and grandson of admirals, he rode a wave
of nepotism into the cockpit of several planes, and crashed them. Then it was
off to Vietnam to drop napalm on children. In short order his plane was shot
down, and he was captured. He then heroically... failed to die? Came home,
cheated on his wife, married an heiress, got elected to Congress and immediately
got involved in a corruption scandal, told nasty jokes about the then teenaged
Chelsea Clinton's appearance and about women being raped by apes (though I
suppose that's still better than Sarah Palin charging raped women for forensic
kits)... ran for president and got smeared by Bush, then embraced both Bush and
his tactics, running a smear campaign against Obama.
Obama said at the convention two weeks ago that "what I will not do is
suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes.
Because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the
idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character
and patriotism." There are so many things wrong with this that it's really
quite disheartening. First of all, John McCain takes his positions for
political purposes. He was against paying fealty to religious
fundamentalists; now that he needs the theocrats on board, he's for it.
He was against the Bush tax giveaway to the ultra-rich; now that he needs
Grover Norquist and the corporate goon squads on board, he's for it. He
was against torturing the cab drivers and 15-year-olds we've been capturing
in Asia; now that he needs the neocons on board, he's for it. The main thing
he's known for is campaign finance reform; now that he's in a race he might
actually lose, he's breaking his own laws.
Second, as noted, anyone who doesn't already have an opinion about John
McCain's positions is never going to care about John McCain's positions.
Third, by running a campaign so sleazy that it makes Lee Atwater's
Bush '88 effort look high-minded, McCain has proven that he has no
character. I don't think you can even call him patriotic. A patriot
wants what's best for the country. If John McCain wanted what was
best for the country, he wouldn't be trying to get people to vote for
And then, fourth — by explicitly stating that he was going to take
the high road, Barack Obama hoped to win votes by showing himself to be
the better man. There's only one problem with this calculation: red
state voters don't want the better man. They want the worse man.
They don't want the good son, earning plaudits from senators while in his
20s like John Kerry or working his way to the presidency of the Harvard
Law Review like Obama; they want the guy who spent his salad days shooting
craps and fucking strippers like McCain. It's a corollary of fundamentalist
Christian ideology. Christianity is built around the idea of redemption for
sin. And that narrative requires that you start off as a fuckup. Especially
helpful is to be a privileged fuckup — the son and grandson of a president
and a senator, say, or the son and grandson of two admirals — so that when
you drop your prodigal ways (to a certain extent) and go into politics, there's a
satisfying sense that you've been restored to your proper place. And a lot of
Republican voters find it very important that people be kept in their proper
places: that's the underlying theme of the ad in which a snippy matron huffs
"How disrespectful!" at the black man challenging the white lady's lies.
Not that he challenges them very strongly. It'd be nice if someone in his
camp would point out that in fact it's quite respectful to call Sarah Palin
merely a liar when in reality she is little more than a device designed to
turn oxygen into lies. I hear there are some new ads on the horizon but so
far it's been a matter of acerbic press releases and library visits in which
Obama calls for the Republicans to start talking about the issues while
Mike Dukakis sits
in the front row giving him a hearty thumbs-up.
5) And people thought mixing up the two Georgias was a joke
But that brings me to why I wound up making my first political donation to
a candidate I don't really believe in. In 1988 Michael Dukakis said the
election wasn't about ideology, but about competence. He lost, because
while George Bush the Elder was perceived as a tongue-tied milquetoast,
people assumed he knew what he was doing. And while the economy tanked
under his watch, compared to his son he was Augustus Caesar. But even if
Dukakis had been running against Dubya — hell, even if Dukakis had
been running against Dubya in 1988 — he still would have lost.
American elections just aren't about competence. If you'd asked me before
the convention, I would have said that I don't care about competence either:
that a really efficient conservative and a really inept conservative are
both going to fuck the country over, just in different ways. Then I saw
That, as you probably know, is John McCain standing in front of a picture
of Walter Reed Middle School, located in North Hollywood, California.
Walter Reed Middle School. Not Walter Reed Army Medical
Center, located in Washington DC, which was at the center of a
scandal involving neglect of wounded veterans last year. Someone got
told to find a picture of Walter Reed, and this is what that person came
up with. And none of McCain's people looked at it and said, "Wait, are you
kidding me? Does this building even look like something from Washington DC?
Is that what you think Mid-Atlantic, looks like? Is that even the right
biome? Did you not notice that it says WALTER REED JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL
along the top? Are you really that incredibly fucking stupid?" Instead, it
got the green light and made it on stage with McCain for the biggest speech
of his career. And something in my head just went sproing and I
found myself at the Obama web site handing over a chunk of my paycheck.
Apparently I care about competence after all!
I guess that even after the last eight years, I still had the sense that
the Republicans were cynically exploiting the uneducated masses their policies
had brought about — that they were well-educated, cultured plutocrats
pretending to be just as stupid as the voters they attract. But after this?
No. They may still be plutocrats, but the evidence seems clear: they
actually are as stupid as the voters they attract. John McCain is not
a smart man! He famously graduated 894th out of 899 in his class — for
red staters, a recommendation — and knows nothing about economics, about
technology, about the difference between Sunni and Shi'a Islam... and he
chose a running mate who bounced from Hawaii Pacific University to North Idaho
College to the University of Idaho to Matanuska-Susitna College, and we've
seen the results: she doesn't know what Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are,
doesn't know what the Bush Doctrine is, thinks Georgia is in NATO... and now
we see that their support staff is equally clueless. The dim bulbs they've
been chasing for all these years are now rising through the ranks.
Barack Obama has said on a number of occasions that the McCain/Palin lies
won't work because "You can't just make stuff up... the American people
aren't stupid." But there are two Americas. In one of them, the American
people aren't stupid. It is actually kind of heartbreaking to think about
the kind of modern, progressive country Blue America could be without Red
America holding it back. The South has basically been choosing our government
for us for several generations, with disastrous results. And to think that we
could have been rid of it! It
tried to leave!
The Palins have taken some heat for being involved with the secessionist Alaska
Independence Party — but I would love to see Alaska secede! So long,
corrupt, backward petrostate! And take
Senator Tubes and
Representative Bitey with you!
But instead we're stuck with Alaska, and the South, and a whole other America
in which, Obama's flattery notwithstanding,
This election will be a test of which half is bigger. I'm not optimistic.
But I guess I still have a big enough shred of hope to put my money where
my mouth isn't.
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