Most of us assume that our vote for our chosen candidate accurately--or at least tolerably--represents our beliefs. In truth, though, our politics frequently violate the coherence of our beliefs. This was vividly impressed upon me six years ago, when, with a friend, I stumbled into a minor international incident while working in Vietnam with a fellow journalist.
Our crime was interviewing a dissident Vietnamese artist without first getting permission from the Vietnamese authorities. As it happens, my journalist friend and I both have fathers with a profound connection to the Vietnam War. My friend’s father wound up moving to Canada to avoid the draft. When he returned to the States after the war, he was prosecuted for draft dodging. He defended himself before the Illinois Supreme Court and won, a decision that later became the cornerstone of President Carter’s blanket pardon of American draft resisters. My father, conversely, was a Marine Corps lieutenant and combat veteran who nearly died of the wounds he received in a tiny hamlet called Tuy Phoc. So we have one father who so opposed his nation’s involvement in Vietnam he felt sympathy for the soldiers and guerrillas killing his fellow Americans, and another so convinced by his nation’s inherent moral rightness that he put his life on the line to stop the spread of Communism.
How do you think these two men would have reacted upon learning that their sons had been detained and threatened by agents of a Communist regime that stands as a living reminder of the war that had so affected their lives? One of our fathers said: “Those dirty Commies! How dare they touch my son!” Another said: “Well, son, it is their country, which means you have to abide by their rules and laws.” If our politics were truly related to our beliefs, my father would have been the one to complain about dirty Commies. But he wasn’t. Why? Because our politics don’t necessarily have anything to do with our beliefs. Politics, and presidential politics particularly, are instead dictated by nodes of sympathetic inclination.
Nothing else can explain the bizarre and historically unprecedented phenomenon of evangelical Christian voters willing to support a candidate whose religious beliefs are a product of one of the most successful, and recent, heresies to emerge from within Christianity. Conservative Christian “values voters” are supposed to be citizens for whom religious faith is an unbreakable ballast, the moral line that shall never be crossed. How, then, can they in good conscience vote for Mitt Romney, whose church rejects two thousand years of orthodox Christian thought?
Barack Obama, meanwhile, despite the Right’s relentless caricature of him as a secular Islamist Marxist racist and foreign-born Chicago community organizer, took a grave step beyond the previous administration’s extrajudicial war on terror policies. For the first time in American history, an American president sanctioned the assassination of American citizens merely suspected of terrorism. How can this policy not horrify and trouble self-described liberals? How can it not shatter their trust in President Obama? If George W. Bush had signed off on such an assassination program, there would have been talk of war crimes, impeachment, and constitutional degradation. There has been some such talk on the Left, to be sure, just as some conservative Christians are troubled by Romney’s faith, but not nearly as much or as many as one would think.
A smartly run presidential campaign is of course aware that much of the communication that goes on between candidates and voters occurs at a nodal, almost subliminal level. The so-called messaging emerging from the Obama campaign for the last six months has along these lines: getting better, tough out there, responsible, steady, schools = good, tax the rich, middle class middle class middle class, and hang in there, America. For a man the Tea Party Express calls “the candidate of Al-Qaeda,” it’s a surprisingly staid message. The Obama campaign has so far studiously avoided trafficking in the language of disenfranchisement and identity politics once common among Democrats, and which has historically been about as appealing to the average American voter as Norwegian death metal.
The Romney campaign, on the other hand, has been transmitting its own array of messages: no more weakness, no taxes, no gays, no illegals, no apologies, business = good, angry angry angry, and Bible time all the time. This is not a notably heart-warming message, and it sounds eerily similar to the speech the Big Lebowski shouts at the Dude as he throws him out of his office. Obviously, both the Democrats and Republicans have unhinged charlatan fringes, but this campaign, for the first time in my adult life, puts forth a Democratic Party confident enough to stand as the bearer of status-quo responsibility and a Republican Party convinced that up-against-the-wall cultural radicalism presents the clearest path to victory.
A large part of me, I admit, finds this turn of events somewhat strange and discomforting. I came of age inclined toward the Left precisely because it was not the status quo. But once you develop a node of sympathetic inclination, it proves shockingly difficult to turn away. For instance, this website recently informed me, to my utter shock, that the candidate to whom I’m most ideologically similar is the Green Party’s Jill Stein, even though I have never voted Green and cannot even contemplate the possibility of voting Green. Why not? Well, they’re pretty clearly a bunch of dirty Commies.