I think there is a racial component to the incongruity in the way the media has treated Obama and Romney’s faiths. To be sure, both Romney’s Mormonism and Obama’s black liberation theology-infused Christianity still exist—in the minds of many Americans—outside the religious mainstream. Yet when it comes to “10 a.m. on Sunday morning [being] the most segregated hour of the week,” as Martin Luther King Jr. is credited with saying, Mormon exclusion of blacks from full membership is certainly not uniquely Mormon. Instead, it belongs to a history that most American Christian communities have had to contend with. Wright’s powerful—and poorly understood—critique of the legacy of institutional racism was too direct, too on the nose, for many Americans—including the Americans whose votes Obama needed to become president.
The following is a guest post from Lory Mishra who has been a friend to our family for a few years. She’s a recent college graduate with a witty sense of humor, legit cooking skills and, as you’ll read, a mind for insightful analysis. When Lory is not getting upset at the news, she’s usually obsessing over a new comedy show or experimenting in her kitchen. Check out her recipe blog for a taste!
I’ve not had the energy to dive into politics this election cycle so I’m especially glad for this post.
Elections always bring out a little bit of self-righteousness in me and this year even more so. I find myself becoming more and more cynical, disengaged, and frustrated than in any other election cycle (granted, I’ve only lived in the States since 2000 so that’s not very many election cycles) for multiple reasons, the most important one being a lack of pragmatism when discussing the candidates, their proposed policies, and the supposed importance of the Presidential election.
Maybe it’s nostalgia clouding my memory but Barack Obama’s election into office in 2008 was perhaps one of the more inspiring times in American politics. A record number of eligible voters came out to vote for Obama, who seemed to have the the ability to work across the aisle and bring together people from all sorts of backgrounds to rally behind his message. Alas, this political high was short-lived and the man who was to be the biggest uniter ended up facing one of the most divided electorates of the past few decades. There are some obvious reasons that led to this division. The housing market crash immediately after the 2008 elections and Obamacare were probably the biggest culprits but I’d argue that the reactions in the years following, and especially during this election cycle, have been much more aggressive and and emotional than I anticipated. Just log onto any social network following a major news story about the election – debates, economic news, campaign gaffes – and you will see what I mean. I realize some of the most vocal participants on these platforms tend to be people who have already pledged their allegiance to one party or another but the lack of true political discourse is still disheartening.
“One of the most amazing narratives to have evolved out of this election cycle is that of good versus evil.”
Conviction can be a good thing. Knowing what you believe and why is something we encourage as a society but if that conviction starts to get in the way of examining reality honestly and truthfully, then it can be the biggest hinderance. Of course, I did click on a Washington Post article titled “The benefits of free contraception” today because it supported something that I already believe in, but I still think making a conscious effort to expose ourselves to uncomfortable pieces of information is a worthwhile pursuit. As we move closer to election day however, it seems our ability to do so as an electorate is waning and we are setting a pretty bad precedent for future elections as well.
One of the most amazing narratives to have evolved out of this election cycle is that of good versus evil. Voters seem so polarized that we’re talking about the two candidates as good or bad people. Mitt Romney, thanks to his vast personal wealth and private sector background, is more often the target of these accusations. He is often painted as someone who does not care about poverty, wants to stomp all over women’s rights, and wants to let the free market run wild, at the expense of human rights. All he cares about is the bottom line. On the other hand, Obama is the candidate who is apparently such an idealist that he is willing to give government handouts to anyone and everyone; he is the Robin Hood of this election, stealing from the rich to help the poor. Maybe this is cynical of me, but oftentimes presidential candidates will build a certain narrative to rally their base and oftentimes, these promises will fall by the wayside thanks to the checks and balances in the form of the legislature and the judicial system. Both sides seem too busy attacking the bleak future the other promises to truly examine what each of these candidates is proposing and to what extent these propositions are even achievable.
The other curious thing about this election is the uniqueness of candidate Obama. I’m inclined to believe that our expectations were set so high after the 2008 elections that his fall from grace was inevitable. Among the many conservatives and independents he had initially won over, Obama seems to be have lost all credibility and those voters are unwilling to give him a second chance. Many are so decidedly against a second Obama presidency that they cannot even bring themselves to accept legitimate successes of his administration.
Among liberals, Obama either inspires exasperated sighs of what could have been or defensive arguments about what a tough plate he was handed and how he’s still better than someone like Romney. From personal conversations, some Obama supporters will sheepishly admit his controversial use of drones in counter-terrorism efforts or his lack of focus on the housing market as it first began to collapse were missteps but they would still rather vote for him. Others will simply jump to making excuses on his behalf, as if they are personally responsible for making sure he wins a second term. In either case, what I can’t grasp is the unwillingness to assess him (and any other candidate) as honestly and fairly as possible. If an elected official is not meeting your expectations, why wouldn’t you just cast your ballot for another? Why do so many voters feel this loyalty to politicians they themselves will admit are imperfect in important ways?
Romney brings out a similar cognitive dissonance among his supporters as well. The general take on Romney as the Republican nominee seems to be that he was the best available option at the time and that there are very few conservatives who are legitimately excited to vote for him in November. However, they would rather cast a vote for a Republican, as opposed to consider the Democrat or a third-party candidate. Yet again, I’m not sure I understand voters who are willing to settle for someone who maybe does not capture their values or offer solutions to problems they care about. This is best seen when you look at the current tone of the discourse: both sides are unenthusiastic enough about their own candidate that they use most of their bandwidth simply attacking the other side and trying to convince themselves that a future with this uninspiring option is better than one with the other.
The failures of either candidate do not have to be a reflection of the their supporters. Whether one chooses to vote for Obama or Romney in November, casting that ballot and also truthfully acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate do not have to be mutually exclusive. It isn’t very pragmatic to sit here and think about one candidate as the epitome of all that is good and the other as the epitome of all that is bad; this approach is much too simple to fully capture the complexity involved in solving any public policy issue. The other harmful side effect of this type of thinking is the unfair conclusions we draw and the assumptions we make about the people who support the other candidate. Making a huge generalization about someone because of the how they voted a) hinders us from having a honest conversation about our differences and learning from each other and b) is usually a mischaracterization. I would argue that the public policy issues we have solved most effectively have been a result of a partnership between the two opposing sides. If we suddenly become unable to listen to each other all we are doing is hurting our ability to prosper as a society.
“The failures of either candidate do not have to be a reflection of the their supporters.”
My other beef with the current state of affairs is the lack of room for any other candidate to join the conversation. It’s a real tragedy that casting a vote for a candidate other than the Republican or Democrat is seen as a “wasted vote”. Americans’ political views cannot be captured by two extremes; it falls on a spectrum from left to right and it only makes sense that we would consider that candidates who perhaps capture those nuances better than the two options presented. I’m not advocating for Obama, Romney, or any third candidate; I am advocating for there to be more candidates who are serious contenders. For a country that so fiercely believes in the choices that the free market offers, we are surprisingly limited when it comes to elected officials.
Recently, NPR’s Planet Money team (which puts together some of my favorite podcasts) broadcasted a story about six policy solutions economists from all over the political spectrum agree on and why pursuing any of them would be political suicide. This supposedly no-brainer platform could solve a lot of our issues around debt, rising healthcare costs, various types of government waste, etc. but none of these are very marketable ideas when it comes to an election. I realize it’s naive to expect anyone to run on a lot of these issues and win the election but I do think it’s reasonable to expect us to talk about these solutions, among the others. Limiting ourselves to only considering two options inevitably limits the number of solutions we are considering. In fact, we are rarely even considering real solutions because of how thoroughly we have dumbed down the conversation to trite talking points.
To a great degree, local and state elections have much more of a direct impact on our daily lives than do the national elections. Now that I have finished my short novel about the state of the national election, it is only fair to consider exactly how much the President really matters. To further expose my podcast addiction, Freakonomics radio re-ran a really interesting piece about the very topic. Many political commentators and economists argue that the President has a very limited effect on the state of the country and that oftentimes, their biggest role is serving as the public persona for one side or the other. Of course, the ability to wage war, sign treaties, or veto bills are hardly insignificant but we may be ascribing too much importance to this position nonetheless. It is really easy to get caught up in the details of a national election because of the widespread coverage they tend to receive but one cannot lose sight of the importance of the less sexy elections in our own cities, towns and states.
Political candidates are elected to serve the public and if they are not meeting our expectations, we should not have to settle. So whoever you decide to vote for next month, I hope you will consider their platform reasonably and fairly.