My friend Serge emailed from Paris to complain about my Huffpo posts. He thinks they include too much personal information; as such, they are not proper forms of journalism. Serge knows a thing or two about journalism (he's Senior Editor at Le Monde Diplomatique). Maybe he's right. In response, I tried to rationalize my approach by calling it "Hegelian": larger issues are sometimes revealed in and through particulars. Today's post will once again disappoint Serge, I'm afraid, because I want to talk about my neighbor Bill.
Bill is a great guy. He also happens to be a die-hard Republican. Still, we get along famously, as long as we don't try to convert one another. Democratic pollsters who want to give an edge to their clients tend to look at aggregated trends, in search of insightful abstractions across the data. I think they should spend more time with individuals like Bill.
Bill's retired. He and his wife are about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They live on modest means. He flies the flag, attends church and occasional Bible study, and regularly volunteers his time through the local Rotary. He also makes sure his neighbors have a steady supply of vine-ripened tomatoes from his garden (no matter what their political leanings!).
Bill doesn't subscribe to a newspaper or log onto a computer, so he doesn't stay abreast of all the latest scandals and machinations and late-breaking news coming out of Washington. He's under no illusions, however, about what's going on in Iraq. Yet he hasn't wavered in his support for Bush or the Republicans.
Outwardly, Bill conforms to the "God, guns, gays" profile of a middle-class Republican voter. But I think that cartoon characterization is a misreading of Bill's motivations.
To my eye, Bill doesn't support Bush because of their common affinities with Christianity--that's just not a big part of the equation in his case, because religion, for Bill, is essentially a private matter. He doesn't support the Republicans because of some maniacal NRA obsession (though guns he has: during the 1992 LA riots he generously offered to lend me some shotguns out of his arsenal--er, thanks but no thanks). Yes, once in a while Bill will make some derogatory quip about gays. But like many of his fellow voters in the 26th District of California, he continues to vote for U.S. Representative David Dreier, even though Dreier's sexual orientation is pretty much common knowledge around these parts. Doesn't faze Bill. And Bill is nobody's fool about such things.
The other explanations I commonly hear about the origins of middle-class Republicanism don't fit Bill. Bill doesn't find Bush all that "likeable" on a gut level. Bill isn't an "anti-government" libertarian ideologue. Bill doesn't stew in his juices over the condescending cultural elitism of Hollywood liberals, nor does he blame teachers, unions, abortionists, newscasters, or immigrants for the problems facing the nation.
He is firm in his conviction that Republicans cut taxes and defend the nation. If you start pointing out problems with this reasoning--the ballooning deficits, the corporate cronyism, the lies about Iraq, the piss-poor planning in Iraq--it doesn't undermine his loyalties. His faith isn't blind or boorish: instead, he sees something that we don't see, or appreciates something that we don't, a kind of complexity we overlook.
The things that get Democrats' blood boiling about the current administration (where to start?) --hypocrisy, corruption, criminality, incompetence, war mongering--don't get under Bill's skin. It's not that he turns a blind eye to Republican deficiencies. But I think he abides by a different theory of government, about which Democrats seem to be largely clueless.
If I were to articulate this theory of government, to bring it out into the open, it would go something like this: Government is supposed to do the bidding, some behind-the-scenes dirty work, so that private citizens such as Bill don't have to worry about such matters. Government is supposed to be mean-spirited when necessary, or hypocritical, or belligerent. Do what it takes to get the job done, and don't bother ordinary citizens with the sordid details. The NSA encroaches on civil liberties? Not such a big deal in our neighborhood. In fact, it's reassuring that someone in government has the derring-do and moxie to bend or break a few rules, so that the rest of us law-abiding types can maintain our innocence.
What Bill cares about is that the Republicans will cut his taxes--let someone else worry about the long-term deficits. It isn't that Bill is "selfish" or "greedy." He's a sweet person who devotes himself to charity and is a beloved pillar of the community. He'd just rather think about tomatoes and Rotarian scholarships than about the imponderable national debt. And he trusts that the Republicans will kill our enemies if need be, without having to brood too long about pulling the trigger. That kind of meanness accords with his interests--but that doesn't mean he is a mean person. Government is mean, so that he doesn't have to be.
Democrats miss the point if they harp on Republican double-dealing, the culture of corruption, or the fact that so many Republican chicken hawks weaseled out of national service. At that time, these chicken-hawks-to-be did what they had to do; and today they'll be cutthroat and calculating, if need be, for Bill's sake, too. Only a fool puts his own life at risk, when you'll clever enough to get someone else to go in your place.
Thus beware, Democratic candidates, if you are running so earnestly on your patriotism, principles, policies, and comparative competence. An unspoken secret of Karl Rove's Republicanism is that a dose of meanness, the capacity for lying and hypocrisy and skullduggery, is implicitly attractive to certain segments of the electorate, I suspect a lot of ordinary folks. Jimmy Carter was a great Christian, but he could never be mean or conniving enough to be seen as an effective, take-charge leader. When Bill Clinton played Carvillean hardball, exhibiting his southern street smarts and savvy, he revealed some of that capacity for governmental duplicity. We learned that he could indeed lie, but it turned out his lies were for his own sake--and thus the other Bills of the country couldn't entrust him to lie in their behalf, too.
Note to myself: Email Serge about how American ruthlessness can operate under a cover of beguiling familiarity. He can be so naïve at times!