Friday, September 12, 2008

No Laughing Matter.

My friend Susan and I have had long conversations throuhout the political season about how far too many liberal and progressive organisations spent far too much of their time talking to themselves and each other. Their advertising and other appeals forget that to make their point, they have to speak to a wider audience than just the already-converted.

Democrats seem to be making the same mistake this time around as they have in previous presidential campaigns. In today’s edition, New York Times blogger Judith Warner addresses the point in a way that should make everyone who wants to see Obama elected – and that includes the Obama campaign management – sit up and take notice. It may explain why the race seems to be so is tight and it's worth reprinting here.

No Laughing Matter
– by Judith Warner

“You can stand on my wagon, if you want.”

I tend, when I’m not in big crowds, to forget that I’m short. In Republican crowds, I find, I feel particularly small.

And dark. And unsmiling. And uncoiffed, unmade-up and inappropriately dressed.

For the McCain/Palin rally in Fairfax, Va, on Wednesday, the organizers had asked people to wear red. I – unthinkingly – had dressed in blue, which was somewhat isolating.

I was isolated, too, because, unable to find the press area in the crowd of about 15,000, I was out with the “real” people. Which meant that I could hear everything from the podium and from the onlookers around me, but could see nothing, not, at least, until the mom beside me stopped struggling to balance atop her Little Tikes wagon with two toddlers in her arms and another screaming at her feet, and offered me a go at the view.

(“It’s Sarah. Sarah’s going to be the vice president,” she had told the little girls, clad in their matching polka dot dresses. “Sarah Palin.”)

She was a nice woman. She told me history was in the making. She told me where to get lunch. She handed me back my reporter’s notebook when one of her almost-two-year-old twins, fixing me with a dark look of mistrust, took it away. “Liberal media, eh?” her solemn eyes glared. “Well, watch what you say about my mommy and Our Sarah.”

Do not think for a moment that I was being paranoid.

Fred Thompson had warmed up the crowd, his familiar old district attorney’s voice restored to full bombast, and he’d been in fine form, denouncing – to loud boos from the crowd — the “lawyers and scandal mongers and representatives of cable networks” (boos from the crowd) who were at that very moment descending upon Alaska looking for dirt on their Sarah.

“I hope they brought their own Brie and Chablis with them,” he’d said, to raucous laughter, as I willed myself to disappear, remembering, with a shudder, that my children had demanded Brie for breakfast only that morning.

I should have been finding this funny. My whole plan, after all, had been to write something funny this week about the whole Sarah Palin phenomenon. I’d arrived at an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-laugh-at-’em kind of a juncture, I suppose.

I’d planned to make attending the McCain/Palin event a silly sort of adventure. I’d invited a friend who has six kids to come with me. I figured funny things were bound to befall us in Palin-Land, where, collectively, we’d have eight children between us (a funny thought in and of itself.) A Harold and Kumar Escape from the Barracuda sort of storyline was the idea – until my friend, done in by one too many sleepless nights, declined to accompany me, and I had to venture off alone.

And, forced to make new friends on the spot, discovered that the Palin Phenomenon is no laughing matter.

Those who think that it is — well, as Thompson warned on Wednesday, “they’ve got another thing coming.”

I made my first friend on the shuttle bus that took us from a nearby mall, where we’d been instructed to park, to the field where the rally was held. She was from Leesburg, Va, an ardent McCain supporter, conservative and self-described “soccer mom,” who grew up in Pennsylvania among girls who went hunting with their Dads.

Sarah Palin, she told me, “just seems like a regular person.”

I did not argue with her. One does not argue when making new friends. And besides, we had so many other things to bond over. We talked about kids with issues. She had a son with A.D.H.D., cousins with Asperger’s and dysgraphia, and a nephew with autism. (“They’re lucky they live in New Jersey . New Jersey ’s pretty progressive,” she said.)

We talked about the moral vacuity of modern parenting. “I see extreme spoiling, self-absorption,” she said. “Constant bringing the kids up to love themselves without reflecting on how they affect others.” We talked about the disastrous lack of respect that children now show adults and institutions, and about the ways this lack of respect translates into a very ugly sort of lack of decorum and a lack of basic manners: “This 10-year-old, my daughter’s friend, she comes over and throws down a magazine with John McCain on the cover. ‘Here’s friggin John McCain,’ she says. ‘Let’s see what lies he’s going to tell now.’” She continued: “These 10-year-olds think they’re better than me. That they don’t have to say hello. That they think I’m beneath them.”

You go girl, I was thinking, in so many words, until the talk turned back to politics: “So often these kids that are so incredibly full of themselves, I find their parents are Democrats. The Democrats, they hate ‘us,’ the United States , but they love ‘me,’ that is, themselves,” she said.

I heard a lot more talk that day about the need for respect – and about arrogance and selfishness and about Democrats and liberals who think way too highly of themselves.

Fred Thompson on the liberal media: “This woman is undergoing the most vicious assault … all because she is a threat to the power they expected to inherit and think they’re entitled to.”
Businessman Scott Maclean on the Democratic Party: “Their attitude is: you don’t get it and they don’t expect you to get it because they’re smarter than you – and I hate that.”

I heard, repeatedly, a complaint about sterile individualism, about selfishness and the desire for a revalidated “us” – from John McCain’s boilerplate attack on “me-first Washington” to this curious reflection, from a mother of nine, on the field with eight of her children, on the question of whether she, like Palin, could ever imagine balancing the demands of her large family against a high-profile political career like Sarah’s.

“My daughter asked me, ‘Mom, would you do that if you had the opportunity?,’” she recalled, as the six-year-old in question looked on. “I said ‘I don’t know. Maybe she was born to do that. Maybe that’s the sacrifice she has to make to serve her country.’”

The daughter lifted high her hand-painted, flower-adorned Palin sign.

“She’ll really be a big step forward for women,” the mother said.

No, it wasn’t funny, my morning with the hockey and the soccer moms, the homeschooling moms and the book club moms, the joyful moms who brought their children to see history in the making and spun them on the lawn, dancing, when music played. It was sobering. It was serious. It was an education.

“Palin Power” isn’t just about making hockey moms feel important. It’s not just about giving abortion rights opponents their due. It’s also, in obscure ways, about making yearnings come true — deep, inchoate desires about respect and service, hierarchy and family that have somehow been successfully projected onto the figure of this unlikely woman and have stuck.

For those of us who can’t tap into those yearnings, it seems the Palin faithful are blind – to the contradictions between her stated positions and the truth of the policies she espouses, to the contradictions between her ideology and their interests. But Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor of moral psychology at the University of Virginia, argues in an essay this month, “What Makes People Vote Republican?,” that it’s liberals, in fact, who are dangerously blind.

Haidt has conducted research in which liberals and conservatives were asked to project themselves into the minds of their opponents and answer questions about their moral reasoning. Conservatives, he said, prove quite adept at thinking like liberals, but liberals are consistently incapable of understanding the conservative point of view. “Liberals feel contempt for the conservative moral view, and that is very, very angering. Republicans are good at exploiting that anger,” he told me in a phone interview.

Perhaps that’s why the conservatives can so successfully get under liberals’ skin. And why liberals need to start working harder at breaking through the empathy barrier.

© 2008 The New York Times Co.


Lenore said...

I do think Obama understands this stuff but the republican press and spin doctors are unbelievably sinister in their spin. That's what frightens me and disappoints me. Look at the low sleazy advertising taking the airwaves now. They stoop so low, set the bar so low, and pander so low that anyone can climb aboard. Until the entire Democratic party recognizes this we're sunk. I can't help but wonder what would have happened had Hillary been nominated. Palin is as polarizing as Hillary is, just in a different way.

Democracy Lover said...

So we liberals have a hard time understanding the conservative point of view. We can't understand why voters believe in and trust candidates simply because they hold conservative views and refuse to look at the contradictions between their statements and their records.

We fail to understand why voters ignore the economy, the war, the deficit, torture and illegal spying on Americans and support candidates because they claim to be anti-abortion or pretend to share their values.

Haidt says "conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer "moral clarity"—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate."

I want to read his essay much more closely, but how can liberals in good conscience appeal to such voters? Should we even try? Won't any attempt we make to appeal to them seem hollow and phony?

Joanne said...

Warner sternly takes her fellow liberals to task for not having enough "empathy" for the conservative point of view. Oh boo hoo! Her very column illustrates why the Democrats almost consistently lose presidential elections even as they prevail in locally-defined contests.

Enough hand wringing about our faults and why the other guys don't like us. LET em hate us. This is war. They are sharpening their knives (yeah, all those "nice" Republicans are writing checks for that!) and they are going after Obama and Biden with everything they've got. Meanwhile, liberals sit around and worry about how to "empathize" with soccer moms more. Are you kidding? I for one, am not worried about empathizing with the ignorant, the wilfully uninformed, and the blithely blind. I will fight like hell to have my country run by people who know what they're doing, not people who make great barbeque sauce. Put a sock in it, Judy!

Dominique said...

This is so true. It's no use preaching to the converted. The people who care, for example, that Palin is "absolutely not a feminist" were never going to vote for the GOP in the first place. The undecided will likely be swayed much more by Palin's spotty track record combined with McCain's age, making her ascension a definite probability; and by the breathakingly blatant flip-flop turning Palin into a media-darling-cum-glamour-puss mere months after skewering Obama for too much purported star quality... Who looks like Paris Hilton now??? And how quickly has the GOP demonstrated it'll change its stripes when they think it's convenient? There seems to be quite enough information *on* the record (paper trails, reports, voting record, budget figures) to make a case against Palin as someone who's made too many mistakes, in her short and relatively obscure tenure, to be trusted as President.