Election Thoughts II
October 16, 2008
I was reading through some old posts from my time in Cameroon today and came across the first comment Mr. Pollack ever made on my blog:
“I wonder about the morality of the GOP’s (very shrewd) effort to convince the evangelicals that they are they “moral” party. Part of me can’t believe it has been so overwhelmingly successful. Maybe their evangelical wing ought to try some geometry on camels and eyes of needles. Or to read the New Testament with two differently-colored hi-lighters for those places where they find mention, on the one hand, of reproductive rights and gay marriage, and on the other, say, poverty. But I guess that would only take one hi-lighter.
“The great political re-alignment of the last decades does not look promising to me. Bush isn’t even a fiscal conservative. More and more the parties seem to be abandoning the old distinctions of class or of political or economic theory in favor of a simple religious distinction.
“It seems to me that the Dems need to get more comfortable talking about morality, even to frame their social and foreign-policy concerns as fundamentally moral concerns, and with greater moral imperative than the GOP’s phantom issues. They need to stop thinking of themselves as an urban party and reconnect to their blue-collar roots, to appeal more sincerely to the middle of the country (I don’t take it as a coincidence that the last three Dems to stand a chance in the South — Carter, Clinton, and Gore — are all three of them Southerners).”
In a later comment on the same thread, he writes:
“I still wonder whether the Democratic party could turn the tables by persuading these folks of the morality of their own platform. These days the Dems seem to me so bashful about religion and morality, that even when they do mention them, as often as not, they come off (to my ear, at any rate) insincere and awkwardly politically calculated. I don’t think this has always been the case, and as a particularly vivid example I recall Clinton’s use of the phrase “New Covenant.” I sense that the Republicans have been trying to corner the market on morality for some time now, to be the christian-est christians around, and that they have been so successful that the Dems don’t seem credible on the subject. Like Republicans talking about minority rights — of course they are for minority rights, and the Dems are for morality and Christianity, and probably they’re all for puppy dogs and candy, too, but the one party has become so culturally affiliated with blacks and gays and the other with evangelical Christianity that the candidates even sound suspicious of themselves when they encroach on the other side’s territory. Bush good for minorities? Impossible. Kerry a Christian? No way, he’s Catholic, and probably not even a good one.”
It’s four years later; Robbie has, miraculously, stuck around Monadology to the benefit of all of us. Polls suggest that Senator Barack Obama may not only win this November’s election, but win it by a landslide. The Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, is transparently nominal in his Christianity, and is so unable to speak persuasively on matters of religion that he largely avoids it. He selected a running mate for Vice President so extreme in many positions (Left Behind-style eschatology probably first among them) that many Evangelical Christians are embarrassed by the association. Senator Barack Obama is an adult convert to Christianity, speaks frequently and unrepentantly about his faith, and called sex “sacred” in the final presidential debate of the campaign last evening. (He even claimed to support a theoretical ban on late-term abortions, so long as it had an exception for cases threatening a mother’s health!)
Robbie’s wish list for the Democratic party reads, to me, almost as if it were summoning Barack Obama from the dust and forming his exact abilities and character from nothing. The tables have been turned, and so convincingly! John McCain cannot come across as anything but calculating these days, no matter what he says, though his persona of authenticity is largely responsibility for his position as candidate in the first place. Barack Obama, on the other hand, manages to appear ingenuous even where he’s been baldly Machiavellian (as when ignoring McCain’s accurate charge of duplicity last night regarding Obama’s reversal on public financing).
The appropriation of morality by the Republican party has, I think, been significantly disrupted. Those left supporting McCain tend to be part of the depleted Evangelical camp or the ideologically anti-taxes camp, a group whose unnatural pairing is causing an increasing amount of tension. The Democrats have claimed some of it, though much of that inheritance comes either through Barack Obama’s sole efforts or by virtue of being the other guy. Should Obama and Biden win this election, should the Democrats retain control of Congress (which looks almost certain), they’ll be faced with the challenge of actually living this perception.
I have some hope that they may be somewhat successful. This hope comes significantly from looking at two institutions: The University of Chicago and Trinity United Church of Christ. UC is, for me, primarily shorthand for my perception of Obama’s tremendous leaning towards market-based politics and political pragmatism rather than ideology.
For what I mean by mentioning Trinity, take a moment to check out their The Black Value System. It is in and of itself a kind of muscular response to Mr. Pollack’s dream for the Democratic Party, a substantial and robust core for that needed morality to spring from, but a morality fundamentally separate from the subverted white Evangelical code. It allows this resurgence of powerful, persuasive moral language to be sincere, rather than merely cynical.
Certainly, Trinity managed, through Rev. Jeremiah Wright, to nearly derail the Obama campaign during the primaries. Much of the white US woke up to how strange and frightening they found black Christianity, something they all thought of as a hand-clapping, gospel-singing version of their own faiths. I wonder, though, if that very strangeness and separateness is what gives it the power to cut across the Republican-reinforced lines of party separation that Mr. Pollack decried four years ago.