Current Events, Political Culture
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Political Culture: Still Two Americas

We may not have John Edwards to kick around anymore – though that hasn’t stopped us from putting the occasional boot into his backside, has it? – but he did leave us with a paradigm that remains useful in surveying the political landscape circa November 2009. Forget, for the moment, Edwards’ rhetoric about the rich and the poor, and focus instead on the two wildly disparate narratives about the nation’s politics that have emerged over the past 12 months. On one side are those are still living in Bamalot, who see slow but steady progress toward fixing enormous problems in the economy, health care and foreign policy; on the other are those who see nothing but dollar bills flying out the windows of the Capitol. On one side are those who remain quietly, but fiercely proud of what America accomplished last autumn; on the other are those who loudly trumpet their conviction (or who put up with people who remain convinced) that the president himself is not an American.

On Tuesday, in a couple of states, one side sat contentedly on their asses and did nothing; the other harnessed themselves into an angry, energized mini-electorate that drove to the polls and turned their governors’ mansions from blue to red.

There was something deeply ironic about HBO’s decision to debut its new documentary, By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, on Tuesday evening. At the same hour on every news channel, a debate was raging as to whether Obama’s “movement for change” had hit a roadblock with the Republican victories in New Jersey and Virginia. But over on pay cable, it was Decision ’08 all over again as the Edward Norton-produced doc replayed the goings-on behind the scenes of Obama’s primary and general-election victories – and portrayed his opponents as little more than flies to be swatted along the path to the inevitable.

So, yes, the dichotomy was ironic – but it was also a nice metaphor for Tuesday’s outcome. Obama’s voters, feeling like they did their job last year and remaining pretty happy with the way things have gone since then, stayed home and watched TV, while the unhappy folks dragged their butts to the polls and changed the status quo. Such is democracy in America – particularly in these off-off-year elections, when the voters of New Jersey and (particularly) Virginia love to send Bronx cheers to the party in power.

Whether or not Tuesday’s results were a referendum on Obama’s first year depends on who’s punditizing. Maybe Republicans are rebounding strongly from their annus horribilis … and maybe they just benefited from minuscule turnout, weak opponents and/or Democratic complacency. Take your pick. The truth, though, is that none of this year’s “big” elections meant much of anything to the direction of the country at large – except in Maine, where Americans proved once again that they’re not morally or intellectually worthy of being trusted with mob-rule decisions on minority rights. (It’s long past time that the Supreme Court took such decisions out of their hands for good; the whole enterprise of public voting to deny civil rights is patently unconstitutional.)

Even if Tuesday’s results were largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, I couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition of mentalities on display during Chris Christie’s victory rally and Obama’s equivalent celebrations last year. Remember all the respectful diversity and joyful weeping that attended Obama’s Grant Park speech last November? In contrast, Christie’s audience was the usual crowd of jackals – the kind we’ve seen regularly since the 1992 GOP convention, but especially since last year’s frightening election season. Note to Republican activists: When your own candidate shushes you because you’re embarrassing him on national television, as Christie did this week (and McCain did repeatedly last Nov. 4), you might want to modify your behavior.

Of course, conservative rally-goers have maintained that feral posture throughout this year, through tea parties and town halls that persistently echoed the worst expressions of racism, paranoia and xenophobia at last year’s Sarah Palin rallies. (HBO really ought to be airing its new Obama doc back-to-back with Alexandra Pelosi’s far more riveting film about those McCain/Palin crowds, Right America Feeling Wronged, which retains its raw-nerve immediacy the same way that footage of, say, Bull Connor still terrifies 50 years later.) Indeed, the positivity of the Obama campaign already seems like ancient history compared with the open, seeping wound of White Man’s Victimization that’s still being picked at on a weekly basis by right-wing pundits and teabaggers.

But then, that’s precisely the point of those efforts – to use lies and scare tactics to cover the fact that conservatives have no ideas of their own for fixing the nation’s problems. While Obama and the Democrats have turned from the generalities of campaigning to the specifics of governing, conservative activists have been left with little legislative influence and no standing whatsoever as purveyors of wise policy, considering the last eight years. So they’ve filled the vacuum by doubling down on the rabid, irrational arguments of fall ’08, hoping to whittle away at public support for Obama’s agenda via amped-up name-calling (Foreign-born! Socialist! Fascist! Socialist-Fascist!) and thinly disguised threats of violence.

Does anybody really think the results in Virginia and New Jersey this week were a validation of that strategy? In fact, both Christie and Bob McDonnell won by sublimating their conservative impulses – or flat-out denying them, in the case of McDonnell’s wingnut thesis – and embracing Obama’s themes, if not his policies, in an effort to win Independent votes. And they succeeded, even as exit polls showed that majorities of the substantially reduced electorates in both states still support Obama, and even favor the public option. Not that these lessons will be learned by the teabaggers, who are far more excited about what they accomplished in upstate New York – using an “independent” conservative carpetbagger to force aside a moderate Republican – than they are about winning the governor’s mansions in Richmond and Trenton. In the process they lost a congressional seat that had been in GOP hands since the Civil War, but never mind that … ideological purity was enforced!

If Republicans are smart, they’ll encourage their faithful to start emulating McDonnell and stop cheerleading for Michelle Bachmann and Orly Taitz. Perhaps a guy like McDonnell, despite his repugnant “past” beliefs, can grab the reins of the GOP and keep it from galloping over the cliff toward which Palin and Limbaugh and Bachmann and Beck have been steering it. Don’t bet on it, though; the teabaggers, empowered by their overthrow of Dede Scozzafava up in Watertown, are now sniffing under rocks nationwide to find primary challengers for districts represented by other insufficiently crazy Republicans. They’ll probably force McDonnell himself to rediscover his old-time religion soon enough.

Meanwhile, as health care reform lurches toward its denouement and Republicans pick their next battle – how dare Obama launch a jobs program! – the gulf between the Two Americas will no doubt widen in the coming year. Democrats need to re-energize their base and remind Independents that their agenda is about more than just spending a mint-ful of money; no matter how successful they are, they face an uphill battle to ensure that next November’s turnout looks more like last year’s than this year’s. Republicans, on the other hand, need to figure out whether they’re the party of Christie and McDonnell or the party of Doug Hoffman.

What’s that? You’ve forgotten who Doug Hoffman is? That’s because he lost on Tuesday – the same way that most every candidate who forsakes the center in pursuit of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck’s endorsements will lose next autumn. If that happens, we’ll still have Two Americas – but one will be even smaller than it is now.