From the Vault: Election 2012

10 Apr

The post I’d planned to write for today isn’t quite done yet, but since I’m sticking with my plan to put up a post a day, here is something I wrote on the eve of last November’s election. I have some other reservations about doing this; I don’t want to have readers of a newish blog judging everything I post from here on out through the lens of who I voted for in an election–especially one that, in the grand scheme of things, I do not think was all that relevant to most of what I plan to write about on here. But, much as I may wish to believe it, I am not purely objective. I have my biases, so I may as well note them, hopefully with enough nuance that any reader can respect it.

The Only Thing I Will Write About the 2012 Election

I’ve studied politics my entire life, and I spend a healthy amount of my time procrastinating by reading about it daily in any number of publications. So it might come as a surprise to some that I have intentionally avoided nearly every opportunity to express my opinion about the upcoming election. It all goes back to a moment not long after the 2010 elections, when I found myself standing before a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Mexico City in the dead of night and realized, finally, that my happiness in life was not remotely related to the results national elections. It was a delightfully liberating moment. Eternal student that I am, I’ve kept up with the endless intricacies of politics ever since, but always from a comfortable distance, and only rarely volunteering my opinion. But, as the saying goes, silence is only useful if someone somewhere expects you to be loud. Given the extent of the endless screaming about politics out there, it’s obvious my silence hasn’t meant much. Not that I expect to be able to drown out the din now that I am offering something, so I’ll be a good citizen and have my say on the 2012 election.

What a difference four years make: the incumbent President and his party find themselves in a conundrum. The new liberal majority proclaimed four years ago has been beaten into submission, and reality has taken root. This country is split almost evenly between its two dominant parties. This in itself is no great change; it’s exactly where we were twelve years ago, at the start of the George W. Bush era. But after a few wars and a giant recession, the mood couldn’t be any more different. Bush’s effort to remake the world in America’s image fell flat, and U.S. influence around the globe is waning, though in a number of cases that is not necessarily a bad thing. Likewise, the hopelessly high hopes for Barack Obama have resolved themselves into a murky mess, and even if the President is re-elected, the odds do not favor any sort of great shift in a second term.

In search of a pragmatic center-left candidate who disdained business as usual in Washington, I voted for Mr. Obama in 2008. That is more or less what I got, though I will not pretend to be thrilled with the results. Mr. Obama’s dislike of political wrangling led him to ignore the dirty work of consensus-building, and his eagerness to be all things led him into unsavory alliances with much of the entrenched political and economic elite. A necessity for survival in modern government, perhaps, but the consistent caution in the President’s dealings has often allowed others to dictate the terms of the debate. Even when Mr. Obama has tried to be tough, it hasn’t seemed very natural or effective for anyone beyond the base; that just isn’t who he is. And for all of the post-partisan rhetoric, the legislation produced was decidedly liberal; sure, many liberals had their quarrels with certain points, but when one considers the arc of liberal history in this country, there is no doubt Mr. Obama is one of its greatest champions.

After four years in the city, I don’t have many illusions over what Washington does; by in large, I can live with Mr. Obama’s major legislative achievements and foreign policy. Both have elements that I find worrisome, at times even deeply troubling: drone strikes, coziness with big banks and insurance companies, an extremely narrow view of faith, and a well-intentioned but sclerotic continued expansion of the ever-growing, ever-centralizing federal bureaucracy. Still, given the constraints of his office, I think he has done some good where others may have done none.

Yet through it all, I’m reluctant to reward him with a second term. The Democratic turn to class warfare, coupled with canards about taxing the wealthy—though true in the sense that everyone will have to pay in somehow—often rely on fanciful math and willful ignorance. Make no mistake, this country faces a fiscal crisis, and the Democratic Party has yet to offer a substantive approach to reining it all in. None of Mr. Obama’s achievements on the health care front will mean much if this country goes broke sometime down the road. Many of the narrow-minded defenses of government intervention that have emerged this election cycle are cringe-inducing in their portrayal of how the state interacts with individuals, seeming to dole out benefits from on high out of the goodness of its heart, replacing any need for such trivialities as families or communities. I still admire Mr. Obama’s measured seriousness, and perhaps a President freed from worries over future elections could again rise above the fray. But Mr. Obama’s message is no longer something fresh or terribly inspiring beyond the base, and after the exhausting scrutiny of the past four years, he may have neither the will nor the authority to do so.

And so I have done my best to give Mitt Romney an honest appraisal. It wasn’t easy. Though he is more complicated and decent than the all-too-easy caricatures make him out to be, Mr. Romney remains a graceless political chameleon. I think a President Romney would have more in common with the Massachusetts governor than the version of him we saw in the Republican primaries, but his self-serving rush to please does not suggest much potential in the way of executive leadership, and his apparent ambivalence over issues unrelated to the economy is troublesome. Sure, it’d be nice if the economic recovery went a bit faster (no guarantee), but where is the grand scheme? I find his recent adoption of the rhetoric of “change” amusing; he has adopted the vagueness of the Obama ‘08 message without any of the interesting backstory that made Mr. Obama likeable.

All in all, I think Mr. Romney is a distraction; the man who best captures the Republican moment is not the former governor but Congressman Paul Ryan, his lieutenant. There is little doubt Mr. Ryan is the intellectual heavyweight of his party, and he is among the few who take the country’s fiscal situation seriously, even if his proposed solutions are, in the end, no less fudged than those of the Democrats. I have my disagreements with the man, but I’d like to think he has both the political clout and the sense of duty necessary to eventually get something done. Yet I cannot embrace him: he is an enigma, and in the end we are left with this curious fusion of Ayn Rand and Catholic social teaching. Whether the congressman from Wisconsin recognizes it or not, he embodies the contradiction that has poisoned his party: the union of conscientious (if often self-righteous) religious and community-oriented conservatism with a free-market ideology of individualism. Each has its merits (particularly the former, in my opinion), but the resulting policies—slashed taxes without fiscal restraint, a missionary zeal to Americanize the rest of the world, the hypocrisy of conservative government overreach in an effort to impose the alleged solutions—usually manage to combine the worst of both.

It’s enough to make a man go screaming into the night in search of a third way.  At the moment, the most prominent of those options seems to be the Libertarian Party, a freedom-loving alliance of free-market (and sometimes pro-gold standard) adherents and elements of the anti-war, drug-legalizing left. The movement’s standard-bearers, Ron Paul and his son Rand, have sat out the general election, leaving us with the capable but unremarkable Gary Johnson. I find myself in agreement with Mr. Johnson on a number of fronts, just as I have some lingering sympathy for other alternatives such as the Greens, but I do have some serious reservations. Promoters of the third-party vote will sensibly dismiss these reservations; they know their candidates cannot win, so my qualms with Mr. Johnson’s economic plans really don’t matter. The vote is instead a matter of principle; a form of protest, such as it is.

Still, the certain failure of these third-party candidacies simply goes to reveal the folly of the anti-establishment movement in modern American politics. Sure, bits of the Libertarian or Green or Constitutionalist platforms may worm their way into our two behemoths, and though they may be hijacked or lose their purity, this mild populist influence is not insignificant. Yet there can be no victory of any magnitude. It all gets swallowed up by the beast. It’s only natural, and it makes sense: it’s an attempt to change the system from the top down, and labors under the delusion that the president will be the one who sets the agenda. It outsources the responsibility for meaningful change to yet another distant figure who, for some unexplained reason, will allegedly be less constrained by the twin leviathans of the modern state and liberal (in the broad sense of the term) culture. It’s not coincidental that the most successful of these third-party figures are never moderates, but those who best outline a distinctive, and often radical, agenda either largely wedded to a single issue (as with the Greens) or a clearly ideological worldview (the Libertarians). They are admirable voices in the wilderness on hand to ease the consciences of certain idealists, but little more.

The road out of our political malaise is not in the worship of a single candidate or a vision of the world as it should be. It is a return to the particular, to the things we really can control, a realm not yet totally captured by the Washington bureaucracy or the vagaries of the market. While this means paying a bit more attention to state and local races, not even that gets to the core of the issue. Too often local politicians simply ape the talking points of their party, and hatred can run just as rampant at a city council or school board meeting as on the national stage. Yet any serious inroad against the two-party system fostered by our electoral laws will have to start on the local level, where elections are actually winnable without an absurd amount of financial investment. From there, a movement can grow to regional and state levels, a process that would only make sense given the great regional disparities in this country. In nearly all countries with a multi-party system, at least one party is a regional bloc. No, this process would not change things overnight, but that is the point—and a real strength—of democracy.

I am sympathetic to those who would like to just shut out all this political bickering; it all seems so petty, and I’m sick of it, too. But politics isn’t just Obama versus Romney. It is how we interact with people on a day-to-day basis, and need not involve the formal structures of government. It involves our interaction with other people in any walk of life, from churches to schools to private clubs to our decisions in where we do our shopping and to whom we give our money. It is, in short, how we interact with our community; whether we like it or not, we all live in a community of some sort, and we must find a place within it, amongst the competing interests and crazy ideas of those people who surround us. Whatever the libertarian or liberal-state-providing delusions of individual autonomy may say, we’re stuck with those other people, and we’d better learn to live with them. Many liberals will nod and smile when they hear ideas such as these, but liberals do have a tendency to favor certain aspects of “community” over others, and liberal tolerance is often stunningly intolerant of views that drift outside the constraints of the ideology. Truth be told, a robust civil society is, in fact, traditionally a “conservative” talking point, and there are still plenty of examples of this great conservative tradition in such projects as faith-based initiatives and even some of the Tea Party rhetoric. Still, the Randian, hyper-individualist wing of the contemporary American right has dismissed any sense of obligation to the community, and Congressman Ryan’s effort to at least keep it in the conversation was largely ignored.

I’ve spent enough time studying autocracies that I take democracy seriously, so I will be voting; as unappealing as U.S. politics may sometimes seem, five minutes in a developing nation is usually all it takes to reaffirm one’s faith in our decidedly imperfect system. Being jaded enough in my ideals, I will likely vote the straight Democratic ticket. A second Obama term seems like the somewhat lesser of two evils, and in my dreamland, President Obama might find some way to work with a Republican House led by Congressman Ryan. I am less enthused by an alliance between such opportunists as Mr. Romney and Sen. Harry Reid, neither of whom seem to grasp the scope of the challenges this nation faces. I’m very open to voting for an agreeable Republican, but my state’s Senate race is a foregone conclusion in favor of a hardworking and largely positive-messaged incumbent, and my Republican congressman does not even feel the need to post a political platform to his own website. (Apparently my disgust with Obama and/or love for him is supposed to speak for itself? Given the mediocrity of his Democratic opponent I could have been convinced, but at least the Democrat actually says he’ll do things.) In a refreshing bit of clarity, I am untroubled with my ‘no’ votes on constitutional amendments aiming to ban gay marriage and enact a voter ID law, though even there, I tire of the rhetoric used by many fellow ‘no’ voters. Believe it or not, conscientiously following one’s faith is not bigotry.

So on Tuesday night I’ll settle in with a drink or three to watch the results come in (though I doubt it’ll be nearly as glamorous as my Mexican penthouse election party two years ago, or my run to the White House two years prior). It’ll be a pleasant evening of politics as a spectator sport. But to me, it’s no longer a whole lot more than that. On Wednesday morning I’ll get up, tune out the chatter, and get to work. I’ll make a conscious effort to spend less time glued to the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and re-commit myself to this city I’m in, whether it’s serving the needy, being a good neighbor, or simply enjoying such communal rites as a parade or a hockey game. I’ll spend fewer nights on the couch and more nights finding new ways to fall in love with the people around me, and their own rather distinct culture that must be preserved and carried forward. After all my study of politics, it is here, I believe, that we find our happiness. I hope a few others will join me.

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