Democrats must understand several things about Republicans to beat them in 2008. (I am your devoted anthropological servant, without regard to party.)
First, Republicans (and the people who vote for them) must be understood to hold a moral and intellectual position. They are not, as some Democrats insist, “asleep, “ignorant, or developmentally challenged (as noted in yesterdays post). They are not selfish. They are not mistaken. They are not 4 years away from “seeing the light.
Republicans and TPWVFT have an idea of what the body politic is. That this is not the Liberal Left and the Democratic Party idea does not mean it is not an idea. It may not be dismissed as cavalier, craven, or some species of false consciousness. Ad hominem attacks feel good, but, as Melinda pointed a couple of days ago, they dont get the political job done.
The idea: every tub its own bottom
Republicans and TPWVFT believe every tub is its own bottom: every creature must make its own way in the world. It will be rewarded for its successes and punished for its failures. This is the Republican idea of justice and fairness. No, it doesnt conform to the Liberal Left notion of justice and fairness, but it is wrong to insist that it is a cover for selfishness, moral indifference, or a demonstration that Republicans and TPWVFT “just dont get it.
Thus when Nicholas Kristof refers to ‘the millions of farmers, factory workers and waitresses who ended up voting – utterly against their own interests – for Republican candidates, he fails to see that these people vote Republican because they believe this party thinks as they do: that it stands for individual effort and accomplishment. To insist that the voter is just too dumb to understand his/her own interests is a simple anthropological failure to see how Republicans & TPWVFT chose to define these interests. It is no good scorning these people because they do not agree with you. This is the moment to do the right thing anthropologically, and grasp the very points of difference that make the Democratic message unappealing or unintelligible.
A cocktail party
Have you had this ethnographic moment? You are standing at a cocktail party wondering how you might beat your way to the bar for another glass of red wine, and someone from the Liberal Left engages you in a recitation of the things they believe in. For some reason people always take me for a fellow traveler (I think its my haircut), and the song is always the same. “Here are the issues I care about, says the someone. “And, behold, look how deeply I care, is the larger message. “Sharing and caring, this is the thing the someone wants you to know about them as if there were some doubt about their liberal credentials, their moral character, or their capacity for fellow feeling.
Theres always a pause here. The “someone is waiting for me to sing my own song of liberal generositythe ritual reciprocity of cocktail chatter, apparently. I say nothing. But heres what I would say, if I werent so darn Canadian:
“I dont doubt your liberal credentials. But I do wonder if you have talked to a farmer or a waitress lately. The ones who voted Republican did so because they suppose this party is more likely to create a country in which their individual effort and accomplishment will be rewarded. This means, among other things, that they would prefer to keep their tax dollars to fund their own enterprise in the world than surrender it to a more collective approach to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“Oh, well, says the Democratic someone, ‘then youre just a selfish, uncaring, so and so. You dont get it. You dont understand that were all in this tub together. I get this. I really do. I live in a province, Quebec, in which I pay the highest marginal tax rate in the G8. I am happy to do so. (Believe me, I pay a tax bill so staggeringly high it would turn most Democrats into Republicans instantaneously.) But not everyone feels this way. Some people actually resent when the state puts its hand in their pocket. Especially when they believe they can with their own modest gifts and philanthropy fund the common good more effectively than a government that is, well, famously inefficient. (Have Democrats thought through the implications of American philanthropy?)
To say the waitress does not understand her self interest well, isnt this what people mean when they say Democrats are a little arrogant and elitist? If I may hazard another ethnographically undocumented guess, isn’t this the sort of thing that makes some waitresses want to reach for a pot of hot coffee.
“Let me decide how to deploy the value I create in the world, I think the waitress might say. To which she would add, “While you are accusing me of not understanding my self interest, what shall we say about a NYT columnist who helps promote the position that keeps Democrats out of the Whitehouse?
It comes down to this: the waitress who believes she is entitled to decide what her interests are and how she wishes to deploy her wealth in the world versus the NYT columnist who presumes to know better and, insult upon insult, to scold her for her choices.
I dont know. Maybe the Democratic Party is the right party to run the country. But you can’t absent yourself from the mainstream, and then be surprised when the country does not put you in the White House. You can’t scorn the voter and then expect her to slap her forehead and say, “yes, heres my vote! You cant refuse an anthropological understanding the voter, and then expect to lead the country.
Maybe Im wrong. Perhaps the general will should be decided by a columnist at the New York Times. And I think it’s up to Mr. Kristol to explain this to the farmers, factory workers and waitresses of America.
The Democratic Party, bless it, has defined itself as the party that takes America somewhere. This is its strength, its noble calling. But Kristof, dude, you have to get out more. Republicans & TPWVFT are not wrong, ignorant, asleep, selfish or insufficiently self interested. They have an idea. This would be a good time to find out what the idea is. I am starting the count down now. You have four years.
Kristof, Nicholas. 2004. Living Poor, Voting Rich. New York Times. November 3, 2004. subscription required here