The Path We’re Made to Travel
Props to doomsayers Sarah and David for correctly calling this election (and to Matt for phoning it in). I wanted to put some thoughts down as soon as Ohio was called for Obama, partly because I think they’re worth pondering, and partly because I hope to take a long, long vacation from politics beginning Wednesday the 7th.
A Taste for Depravity
For many years I made my living in film, video and other media production. As my studies progressed in college, I found myself more and more dreading the tasks of actually setting up cameras and lights, running power, wrangling a crew, threading a camera, and shooting take after take. Instead, I found myself looking forward to sitting down in the editing suite, stacks of logged footage beside me, and putting it all together with music, graphics, and narration to tell a story. I didn’t stop to think why that was, but by the time I had graduated and was making a living in the industry, I was focused almost entirely on this phase, called “post-production.”
A few years after graduation, with some time and perspective to think about it all, it became clear. My non-production studies in college had centered around film theory, and I had taken an especially keen interest in the early Russian pioneers Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevelod Pudovkin, and a more obscure one named Lev Kuleshev. At the time, I didn’t know why; this was the last area of film I would have predicted I would take an interest in.
Later, it became crystal clear why I had gravitated toward this obscure corner of film theory, and toward the editing phase of production: I was fascinated by the power of montage, and especially juxtaposition. They were the raw elements I preferred to work with, and with which I was most effective - the finished images on film, not what I saw as the monotonous drudgery of production.
So as I’ve watched the American political landscape change over my adult life, I’ve often thrown my hands in the air at what I’ve seen as lost opportunities by Republicans to use visual media - everything from print to commercial television to the web and social media - to emphasize the failings of liberal politicians and their policies.
Never has this frustration been more intense than the past few weeks, in particular the horrific failing of the Obama administration in the Benghazi consulate attack. I thought that a particularly effective TV ad or Facebook image would be a juxtaposition of our dead ambassador and Navy SEALS, beside Barack Obama partying the following night in Las Vegas with Beyonce and Jay-Z and their tower of champagne bottles.
How, I thought, could any reasonable person, with any moral grounding, look at that image and consider that situation for over two seconds without being repulsed? How could anyone who had drunk in even a sip of the disgusting actions of our president even entertain the notion of re-electing him?
My answer didn’t come immediately, but it came soon enough. The answer is this:
- There are millions of voters who can’t tell you that Benghazi is in Libya, can’t tell you that our ambassador was murdered there, can’t even point to Libya on a map.
- There are millions of voters who, while perhaps being able to tell you that our ambassador was killed in some sort of attack, are wholly ignorant of the administration’s fecklessness and perhaps traitorous culpability in all of it.
- But the most important answer is this: There are millions of voters who can be sat down, and have it explained to them exactly what happened, and fully comprehend the disgusting failures of leadership and morality of the Obama administration… they can look at the photos of the men who died fighting in Benghazi and have at least some understanding of their honor and courage and sacrifice, and look at the photos of Barack Obama partying with Beyonce and Jay-Z beside a champagne tower… and they prefer the champagne tower. They prefer the depravity of Barack and Beyonce and Jay-Z to the honor and courage and sacrifice of the men who died in Benghazi.
And combined, those millions of voters outnumber the ones who cannot conceive of preferring depravity over honor.
We could run the same exercise using other questions of morality - photos of partial-birth abortions, for example, or the indignity of the poverty and insecurity that results from socialism - and we would get the same results.
The sad fact is that there now appear to be more voters in America who prefer the soullessness of socialism to the ethic of self-sufficiency, and the depravity of celebrity to the example of honor.
In other words, we are no longer a nation of people united by their common sense of right and wrong, of why government exists and what it is for, yet bickering over the minutiae of how to implement it all. We are in fact a nation of people divided by our wildly different senses of what is moral, and what it means to be an American.
So show them all the ugly pictures you like. They don’t care. They’re not repulsed, because they don’t share our values, our morals, our ethics, or our appreciation of this country.
The Sure Things, RIP
I fell prey to one of the oldest traps in politics - banking on an outcome predicated on the fact that it had never happened before.
Because no president had ever won re-election without increasing the number of states he won the first time, there was no way Barack Obama could win.
Because no president had ever been re-elected with less than 50% approval, there was no way Barack Obama could win.
Because no president had ever been re-elected after trailing so late in the campaign, there was no way Barack Obama could win.
And on and on it went. But Barack Obama won anyway.
It’s not that the sure things aren’t sure anymore. It’s that there’s just no such thing as a sure thing, and we’re foolish to tell ourselves there is.
This goes for the inevitable analysis on strategy we can expect in the coming weeks, the main ones being:
Was Mitt Romney too “moderate” - meaning too much of a flip-flopper, trying to have his cake and eat it too on issues such as abortion and government health care?
Does that mean we could have won with a more conservative candidate?
Or Was Mitt Romney in fact too “conservative” - on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and on fiscal issues like taxes and government spending?
Does that mean we could have won with a more liberal candidate?
I’m brought around again to the question of just what the majority of the American electorate is made up of: If they are what I think they are, then no candidate to the right of Romney could have won.
But just how much more liberal could Romney have been, without being indistinguishable from Barack Obama?
Nice Guys Finish Last, and Decent Guys Don’t Do Much Better
One of the main themes that emerged during Romney’s campaign was that, in stark contrast to John McCain, Republicans grew to like Romney the more they got to know him. The precise opposite was true of McCain.
What we all agreed on was that Romney is a “decent guy.” We may not agree with all of his positions - we may even make a good case that taken as a whole, his positions aren’t terribly conservative - but we all agree that he is a decent guy, and nothing about his loss in this election will change that.
One problem with that is we talked ourselves into believing that voters teetering between Obama and Romney would be swayed by this, when in fact all we were doing was swaying ourselves into believing that far from casting a vote against Barack Obama, as we did in 2008 with McCain, we would actually be casting a vote for Mitt Romney, and that that change was a significant one.
The other problem is that decent guys have a lousy record at winning the presidency, and an equal lousy record when they do.
John McCain was a genuine war hero, for crying out loud. He spent years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, refusing to go home before his turn, even though he knew he would be tortured for it. True, he has a reputation as a hothead, and he’s certainly not what I or most other conservatives would call a conservative, but there’s never been any question about his fundamental decency.
And yet, he lost to Barack Obama.
Gerald Ford was an obviously decent man, and before he descended into terrorist-coddling senility, so was Jimmy Carter. But they were both failures at being president.
George H. W. Bush was another decorated war hero, with a decades-long faithful marriage and an honorable career as a public servant. A thoroughly decent man… and a one-term president.
His son was also a very decent man, conquering alcoholism and rising to the challenge of the September 11th attacks. But in the end, he approved an odious new prescription drug entitlement, approved the equally odious TARP plan, and left many conservatives feeling - rightly - betrayed.
We’re left with Ronald Reagan as the only man we can describe as both decent and successful, and even then we have to put an asterisk beside a couple of years of his second term. I suppose if you squint you could call Eisenhower “successful” - although “not a failure” is probably more apt.
Other than that, who are we left with in the modern era? If FDR was decent, he also presided over a fundamental and, frankly, cancerous transformation of the United States into a welfare nation. Johnson was decidedly not a decent man, and was a raging failure as a president as well. Nixon had some early successes but was also not close to what we would like our “decent” presidents to be. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are two of the most execrable humans ever to occupy the office; nothing more need be said about that.
So this is the sad reality: We don’t do ourselves any favors by convincing ourselves that decency will translate into votes, or that it’s any reassurance that our guy will do a good job.
Furthermore, we have to find a way to deal with the reality that a conservative must be a “decent” guy in order to withstand the savaging of his character by liberals during the campaign, but that the liberal candidate will not be held to the same standards. So Bill Clinton can be proven to be an adulterer who lies to the American people about it, and get a free pass while Bob Dole, another thoroughly decent fellow, gets savaged in the press; Barack Obama can support partial-birth abortion and even infanticide and get a free pass, while Mitt Romney, a faithful husband who doesn’t even smoke or drink, gets painted as some evil cross between Snidely Whiplash and Thurston Howell, III.
But the bottom line is that nice guys rarely win, and even when they do, it’s a crapshoot as to whether they’ll even be competent at the job.
GOP: Change or Die?
I was listening to Laura Ingraham several weeks ago when she went down a laundry list of Barack Obama’s failures and the many dire indicators of the nation’s security and economy. At the end, she said - I’m paraphrasing - if the GOP can’t win against this disaster of a president, then they need to shut it down, clean house, and start from scratch.
I’ve never been a fan of third parties, for several reasons, among them:
- They never win. See John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992, etc.
- They siphon votes in lopsided proportions from the two parties, often dooming the party they’d support if they had to make a choice. Again, see Ross Perot in 1992.
- Non-parliamentary governments such as the United States’ do not serve more than two parties well at all, given everything from its winner-take-all electoral systems down to the way legislative committees are constituted.
In the case of the Libertarian Party in particular, I have always thought of libertarianism as something the GOP would do well to graft onto its stock, but something that comes up well short of being sufficient to build an entire party around. (I also characterize libertarianism as being little more than conservatism divorced of traditional morality, which I believe is accurate but outside the scope of this piece).
But the GOP’s experience with third parties, and the chord the notion strikes every four years with what seems like a growing percentage of its base, force the question: Is the GOP forever doomed to defeat in presidential elections unless it changes - radically - the kinds of candidates it nominates, and thus, presumably, the methods by which it vets and nominates them?
There is the perennial debate within conservatism on social issues - dominated by abortion, but including other issues such as gay marriage, drug policy, euthanasia, etc. - that amounts to: Are we driving off more voters with our positions on these issues than we’re attracting with our far more unified positions on fiscal issues?
In other words - should we stop taking positions on abortion, gay marriage, drug legalization, assisted suicide… letting those issues play out in the states; and focus on presenting a more attractive product to voters that appeals to something they all want, which is more money in their pockets at the end of every month, and a more reassuring economic future for their children?
This is a suggestion that gets a lot of traction in wonky conservative ranks, but I think the answer is maddeningly complex.
The first issue is that the opposition takes what are usually unequivocal and very “loud” positions on all of these issues. They are doctrines of the liberal faith. One can barely be considered by Democrat voters for dog catcher if one doesn’t support abortion, gay marriage, assisted suicide, and legalizing at least marijuana. So why should we drop our positions on them?
Conservatives who advocate this approach like to point out that that’s not the stuff of politics - that the GOP is larding up with boutique social issues what should be a lean, mean platform concerned mainly with economics and to a lesser extent foreign policy, and that’s it. Their message is: Present a concise, well-articulated plan to keep the trains running, and leave the dramatic social issues to ensnare and confound the opposition.
What I point out to them is that keeping the roads paved and making the trains run on time is bureaucracy - mere administration.
Politics is the means by which we attempt to codify our values.
Politics is how we translate into law our opinions on right and wrong: Whether it’s right to kill unborn children, whether it’s right that two men be able to marry, whether it’s right to assist in someone’s suicide.
What do we say about ourselves - and what kind of product do we offer the voting market - if we decline to take positions on these issues?
At a national level this may in fact be workable, as so many of these issues - drug legalization, assisted suicide, for example - could likely be left to the states with minimal complications. But abortion cuts directly to the heart of how we define a human being; gay marriage cuts directly to the heart of how we define the most important social institution in human history. While we might be able to delegate these decisions to the states, the constitutional nature of the questions and the structure of our government ensures that they will sooner or later be brought before the Supreme Court, at which point they will become the law for all the states.
And even if we could delegate these decisions to the states such they were kept out of the Supreme Court, aren’t we then engineering a patchwork of legislation which is not only unworkable in a practical sense, but an incoherent expression of our national character? In other words, even if we could do this, would we really want to?
Which brings me back to the question of whether the GOP must “change or die.” There can be no doubt that America is facing an existential threat exceeded only by the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II. There can also be no doubt that Barack Obama has been a horrible failure at the job of setting this right.
Yet neither can there be any doubt that, given the chance to elect a decent man with a proven track record as an executive, America rejected him, and administered a similar defeat to several key down-ticket offices as well.
It’s obvious a majority of the American public doesn’t want what the GOP is selling. The question is: Does a majority want anything to the right of it? If the answer is to “scratch it and start over,” what does that party look like, and what chances does it have of doing any better than the current one?
Do we really believe that there are enough voters left who recognize the severity of the situation, and are both informed enough and disciplined enough to vote for people who will make us face tough choices?
The Self-Deluded Voter
Conservatives have to face a very uncomfortable fact: By and large, the polls were right. Many of us - myself included - comforted ourselves by “un-skewing” the polls. We took the “toplines” - the percentages of voters who said they were voting for Romney or Obama - and shifted them according to things like party affiliation and projected turnout models.
We kept seeing polls with Romney running a point or two ahead, or a point or two behind, and we kept seeing absurd turnout models: D+9… D+11. We took the difference between the poll’s turnout model and what we expected the actual turnout to be - D+4, even R+1 - did some simple math, and told ourselves that Romney would win by 5, or 6, or 7. “Landslide” got thrown around by some big names in the polling business - the excitable Dick Morris, of course, but also by men of much more sober and exacting standards: George Will, Karl Rove, Michael Barone. They were off by dozens of electoral votes. Even Brit Hume, who predicted an Obama victory, said about the polls, “Something is very, very wrong.”
So at least at this early stage of the post-mortem, it’s not the pollsters who have a lot to answer for - it’s most of the analysts we’ve long looked to as the best in the business, conservative or liberal.
This brings up another fact we’ve got to face, one that I didn’t see mentioned very much over this long and exhausting campaign, and it should have been obvious to us. I only started piecing it together in the past week, as I tried to make sense of the huge discrepancy between the toplines and the internals, but it’s this: People tend to describe themselves as being significantly more conservative than they actually are.
I illustrated this to a friend of mine who was describing a friend of his to me. “He went to [politically-middle-of-the-road-college], and I’ve known him for twenty-five years… he’ll probably vote for Obama, but overall, he’s an old-school, sort-of-conservative Democrat.”
I knew exactly what he meant by all those seemingly contradictory descriptions, and I suspect you do too. You’ve probably described at least one of your friends over the years that way.
The problem is that this fellow, if asked “Do you consider yourself liberal, or conservative?” would almost certainly answer “Oh! Conservative, definitely!”
When… in fact, he’s not remotely conservative.
If, instead, you asked him, “Do you support expanding government-backed medical financial aid for the poor and the elderly?” he would answer “Of course I do!”
If you asked him, “Do you support a woman’s right to choose whether and when to terminate a pregnancy, even if it doesn’t present a threat to her life?” he would answer “Of course I do!”
If you asked him, “Do you support the right of homosexual couples to marry?” he would answer “Of course I do!”
If you asked him “Do you support a reduction in military spending, with the savings applied to investments in green energy initiatives?” he would answer “Of course I do!”
In other words: He is not a conservative by any stretch of the imagination. But most pollsters don’t go to the trouble to tease out all of his positions on these and other issues - they simply ask him how he would describe himself, liberal or conservative. And he will, without a trace of irony or twinge of deceit, answer with “Conservative.”
Longtime readers of this site will recognize this pattern from the countless skirmishes that have led to the situation we now have in the Episcopal as well as Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodist churches: It is not nearly so common that a priest or a bishop will knowingly lie to you and say he is a conservative when he is not; it’s that he honestly believes he’s a conservative even while embracing positions far left of center.
For whatever reason, people’s default description of themselves is conservative, and they have difficulty processing the notion that they may be wild-eyed liberals. It’s an example of the idea that “fish don’t feel water,” or yet another iteration of the famous story of New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael in which she expressed astonishment that Richard Nixon could ever be elected president: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon.”
Many Episcopalians grappling with the leftward lurch of their church continue to struggle with this: Even now, far too many of them don’t evaluate a priest’s or bishop’s actual position on the conservative/liberal spectrum based on the stance they take on specific issues. Instead, they ask vague and easily-answered questions which amount to little more than, “How do you see yourself - liberal, or conservative?”
All of us who have fought the church battle - no matter what denomination, and increasingly, no matter what the flash point that triggered the crisis - have experienced that unsettling feeling when we realize that the person, or the couple, or the entire group we’ve sat next to in the pews, organized cookouts and camping trips with, and taken communion with all these years, are not who we thought they were.
This is the same feeling we now have in the aftermath of this election, when we realize that so many of our fellow citizens have a radically and fundamentally different worldview than our own. It is every bit as unsettling, and we have allowed ourselves to be jarred this way for the same reasons: We too easily assume that the person who looks like us, or drives the same kind of car, or goes to the same church, or likes the same TV shows, or went to the same college, shares all - or at least the most important - of our core values, when in fact many surprises almost certainly await us in coming months and years as it becomes more important to us to determine exactly who believes what.
The Laws, and Unintended Consequences
Finally, we need to face squarely the reality of what may happen to this country if the left’s socialist agenda continues to encroach into our lives and our businesses.
Yes, socialism fails because, as we like to chuckle, “sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.” But it also fails because it runs counter to human nature. It is not natural to feel motivated to work hard when you know you’ll keep fewer of the fruits of your labors, and especially when they will be redistributed to many who simply choose not to work as hard as you do.
I, for one, don’t plan to participate in the forced redistribution of my earnings any more than I can possibly manage to, and I have no reason to doubt that I’m any different from anyone else who works hard for a living.
This won’t be a terrible blow to the left’s redistributionist goals, because I’m not a wealthy man. But there are millions of people just like me who will do the same thing. What’s more, there are plenty of truly wealthy people who have the means I do not to shield an even larger portion of their gains from confiscation by the government.
And they - we - will all do this, with a vengeance. And the combined effect, when you motivate smart, talented, successful people to make sure they and their families are provided for, is to create an even larger gap between rich and poor than we have now. It is impossible to tax the successful in a way that pulls all the poor out of poverty, and besides, if your definition of “poor” is always a line that divides the bottom X-percent of earners from the top Y-percent earners, then you will always have “the poor.” And as long as you always have “the poor,” you will always have calls for more and more taxation and redistribution.
It is an unsustainable model, as we have seen time and time again, from the behemoths of the former Soviet Union to pipsqueak backwaters like Cuba and Cambodia. There is a conceit among the left that “socialism works” because tiny, all-white, boutique western European countries like Sweden and Finland are able to make a go of it; but it’s nothing more than a conceit, as the success of socialism when attempted in geographically large, demographically diverse countries of hundreds of millions of people can be characterized within a range from “economically miserable” to “genocidal.”
Obviously it’s uncertain how all of the assorted leftist miseries this administration would like to impose on us - and it’s probably more fair to say “how all of the assorted leftist miseries a slim majority of this nation has chosen for us” - will play out, but one thing is certain: No country can run trillion-dollar deficits forever. Sooner or later, China will stop lending us money. Sooner or later, the world will decide it no longer has a need for the dollar as a reserve currency, and it will all come crashing down.
I would like to think that the American people have the insight as well as the foresight to understand this, and can correct their course before this happens, but I’m continually reminded of Alexander Tyler’s observation that a democracy “can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the Public Treasury.” I fear that we have reached the point of no return in this regard, and frankly I fear for the future of this country and everyone around the world who depends on us for their livelihoods and security.
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