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 Republicans think are insults — while 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." He continued:

  • "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 gay representatives 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 painting Democrats as queer — 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 make the 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 self-described "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 out-Cheneys 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 John McCain.

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 this:

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, east coast architecture 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, the American people are stupid. 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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