Tuesday, August 28, 2012
How I Became a Democrat--And Why I've Remained One (Part IV)
Sunday, 26 August 2012. Panera Restaurant. Hudson, Ohio. 9:15 a.m.
A woman says: "Some of the things the Republicans are saying are really terrible." Pause. Pause. Pause. "But, you know, I can't vote for Obama." The others mutter their assent.
After a half hour of this, Joyce and I, who have been trying to read the Times and talk about things we care about (softly, softly), decide to head out and go to the grocery store. It is either that or engage these strangers and launch an acrimonious debate that will sail everywhere and arrive nowhere.
I overhear a lot of coffee-shop conversations in Hudson. Retired now, I have no life. So I'm at Caribou most mornings, Starbucks most afternoons. A couple of hours at each place. I do my reading and note-taking. Some thinking. Some listening. I don't consider myself an eavesdropper, by the way--but some people are loud and seem to have been absent that day in science class when the teacher talked about how sound waves travel in closed spaces.
Most of the political discourse I hear makes me grind my teeth in despair. Many apparent paraphrases of Fox News commentaries. Or Rush re-hashes. Obama is a Muslim. Obama was born somewhere else. Obama is a Socialist. The government is evil. We need to take our country back. This debt is killing us. Obama is the worst president in history. (That sort of thing.)
And here's an odd thing, too. Some of these people are what I guess I'd call coffee-house acquaintances. We wave, say hi, ask about the other's offspring; we tell one another stories; we kind of like one another ... I know they're Republicans; they know I'm a Democrat. But after the affability is over, they will sit a dozen feet away from me and grouse loudly and bitterly about DamnDemocrats and socialists and all--as if they are some entirely different species, as if I am--what?--some odd genial harmless anomaly. A single exception, maybe to their political equation (Democrats = Evil Ones Who Want to Destroy America).
It interests me to realize how--whatever our political positions--we are able to rationalize what "our side" does, no matter how troubling. Republicans were amazed how many Democratic women continued to support Bill Clinton after Monica and the others. Democrats are amazed that Republicans support Mitt Romney, who alters positions like a channel-surfer.
We find and embrace the single example that supports our position and ignore the mass of evidence that contradicts it. (A lone hesitant climate or evolutionary scientist is enough, in some minds, to cancel the hundreds--thousands--on the other side.) Some corrupt clerics or coaches convince us to condemn religion and athletics.
I'm exaggerating for effect here--because I'm leading up to something, something a former high school classmate (and follower of this blog), Ralph, anticipated in an email he sent me a couple of days ago.
And one of her principal conclusions? Evangelicals and others are, well, wired differently. (She presented some psychological testing data to support her case.) We "have different evidence for what is true," she wrote. And--to a great extent--we "live in different worlds" (220).
See where this is going?
We live in different worlds. Many of us cannot fathom why someone would be on the other political side. Why would any woman or minority be a Republican? Why do you want to turn America into a failed socialist state? We look at one another across a vast canyon of misunderstanding and mistrust. And, so far away, we are able to impute to others the worst of motives. Even when we're sitting at adjacent tables in Panera.
But people do change parties, change positions. Atheists become evangelicals--and vice-versa. Liberals become conservatives--and vice-versa. And so on. Why? What does it take?
In some cases it takes something deeply personal. My father-in-law, for example, had little sympathy for demonstrators against "The Man" and "corporate America" back in the late 60s and early 70s. He thought they were anti-American. Then, just before he retired, Firestone (for whom he'd worked his entire adult life) decided to cut him (and save a bunch of retirement benefits). Suddenly, he saw the wisdom of the side he'd long ridiculed. He enlisted the help of the union, got some help, got his pension. Changed both his tune and the lyrics.
Sometimes, I think, it's fear of some kind. And we move toward the party or position that makes us feel safer, more secure.
And, maybe, sometimes, it's rational--based on the preponderance of evidence. I look at your platform; I look at mine; I weigh the evidence; I make a choice. But I suspect this doesn't happen all that often.
More often, I think, it's emotional, visceral. Or cardiac. Oh, sure, we love to think we hold the positions we do because of their logical power, their inherent Truth. We studied the issues, you know? And now we've decided.
But I don't think we're anymore logical about politics (we're probably less so!) than we are about any other kind of competition. We look at the evidence, of course (but what evidence?); we consult others' views (whose?); then, perhaps, we ignore it all and root for the team we love. (How else to explain a Tribe fan?)
Our minds may try to instruct us, but our hearts compel us. We often can't explain why we love someone or something. We just do. We're often no better at explaining our political loves than we were back in eighth grade when a friend would exclaim in disbelief, "Why do you like her!"
And so in this election, I have looked at the issues that matter the most to me--health care, war, education, voting rights, civil rights, the economy, the environment, and many others. I have informed myself. And--no surprise--I find I am more in line with the Democrats--far more in line--than with the other side.
I don't like Obama's continual aloofness. I don't like his military policies. I don't like his weak compromises. I don't like his cozy relationship with Wall Street. I don't like his failure to be the vigorous, progressive leader I thought he was last time around.
He fought for universal health care. He supports alternative energy. He supports labor unions. He supports public and higher education. He supports civil rights for all Americans. He supports environmental protections, even if they're costly. He supports ...
Plus ... he's on my team, and I just plain like him better than Romney.
So both my reluctant mind and my eager heart are telling me ... Vote for Obama.
And so I will.