At a high school reunion in the spring of 2009, I visited with a woman I remembered as being sweet, sensitive, and impassioned about social issues. She remarked that for her entire adult life, she’d always voted for the “pro-life” candidate in every election. The presidential election of 2008 had left her confused, she said, because neither of the candidates seemed to be unequivocally anti-abortion.
In other words, neither candidate promised what so many had promised before: to reverse the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and, once again, make abortion illegal in America. (No president or politician could possibly do that, but reality is not an issue here. It’s the promises that count.)
This woman’s fixation on a single issue—a complex issue made simple by the clever GOP spin machine—means that she voted twice for George Bush. She seemed untroubled by his two deadly wars (in which many thousands of former babies had been sacrificed), policies of torture and imprisonment without due cause, and failure to provide basic medical care for mothers and babies throughout the land. She also seemed oblivious to the fact that neither Bush nor his advisors ever mentioned the topic of abortion—which was clearly nowhere on their long list of concerns—except during campaigns.
By and large, Americans aren’t deep thinkers when it comes to politics. This is something Republicans understand and Democrats do not.
Gun rights are another wedge issue that the GOP has historically exploited with great success. In the recent elections, there wasn’t a great deal of national news about guns (there being no actual threat to gun rights to report about). In targeted mailings and Internet campaigns, however, the extreme right continually prods hunters and militia types with conspiracy theories, stoking their fears about having their weapons confiscated by . . . somebody. Hence the impression some Alaskans ended up with that Attorney General Eric Holder was out to get their guns. And a number of the faux Palins during the last election made sure to be seen taking aim, “locked and loaded” against any imagined transgression involving their “Second Amendment rights.” (Which reminds me—who’s in charge of watching Sharron Angle these days—the woman who spoke ominously about “Second Amendment remedies” if the last election didn’t go her way.)
On the issue of gay rights, the right-wing coalition has a cozy deal going. Libertarians (who, by the way, tend to actually think about what they believe) and religious fundamentalists (who don’t) are both up in arms about gays. Libertarians are angry because Obama hasn’t exercised his executive power—or waved his magic wand—and unilaterally ended “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” (Never mind his reasoned and repeated arguments about how much better it will be for all concerned if Congress does away with the silly law it created.) The radical religious, meanwhile, are mad about gays gaining support for basic civil liberties, including marriage. While it’s unlikely that either of these camps went out en masse and voted for Republicans for this reason alone, their noisy complaints helped to stoke the nation’s discontent and drown out the few reasoned voices trying to celebrate the administration’s many accomplishments.
Simplistic thinking, conspiracy theories, and intolerance. Take away voters who respond to these, and who do you have left?
People who are well educated. People who read. People who think deeply, trying to consider important issues from several different angles. People, in other words, that the Sarah Palins of the world scoff at for being “elitist.”
People like the president.
One of the things Obama failed to do during the first two years of his administration was to take monumentally complex issues and break them down into small enough bites for the American public to swallow. In a country in which a relative few are willing to do real intellectual work, it’s hard to inform the populace about issues like global climate change, credit reform, and why tax breaks to the middle class stimulate the economy while tax breaks to the rich do not.
It’s hard. But it’s what the president and his advisers must do if they want to win in 2012.