13 November 2012

Why did they vote Democrat? The guessing game continues

While some Republicans blame themselves for Mitt Romney's defeat last week, or at least blame other Republicans, another cohort of partisans prefers to blame the voters who gave President Obama a second term. Although a few Republicans, ranging from the relatively moderate Kathleen Parker to the relatively crazy Newt Gingrich, feel that their party must find ways to become more inclusive, on the assumption that more Americans would vote Republican if they didn't perceive the party to be bigoted in some way or another, others prefer to say that the majority of voters are wrong. How and why they are wrong is another subject for debate. Some angry opinionators equate votes for Democrats with a lack of intelligence or shame. These are the writers and talkers who assume that people vote for Democrats only because they want something for nothing and see the state as Santa Claus. These Republicans long for a time when folks preferred misery to dependence, as long as they kept their pride. Jonah Goldberg attempts a more intellectual if not more objective analysis. He sees Obama as the heir to Woodrow Wilson's Progressivism. The Progressives of 100 years ago are the bogeymen of ideological historians on the right because the likes of Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt are seen as innovators of big regulatory government. Goldberg characterizes Wilson's philosophy of government as essentially European rather than American. His evidence of this consists of a quote in which Wilson calls on individuals to "marry our interests to the state." This quote has a lineage in modern conservative and libertarian literature going back to a 2000 book by James Bovard, who cites a 1995 article in Policy Review magazine. On the internet, I can find no direct citation of where or when Wilson said it. Even if it represents Wilson's beliefs, whether Wilson saw his beliefs as "European" is unverifiable on Goldberg's evidence. All we know from him is that "Under the European notion of the state, the people are creatures of the state, significant only as parts of the whole," while under the American vision, "the people are sovereign and the government belongs to us." Of course, these ideas conflict only if you believe the state to be something prior to the people; a second opinion might be that the people are creatures of the state because the state is the creature of the people. But we're getting away from Goldberg's real point.

The point of conflict between "European" and "American" ideals of government, Goldberg claims, isn't a chicken-and-egg debate over the relationship of the state to the people, but the rival claims upon individuals of the state and the family. "The family, rightly understood, is an autonomous source of meaning in our lives and the chief place where we sacrifice for, and cooperate with, others," Goldberg writes, "It is also the foundation for local communities and social engagement." By contrast, Progressives, represented by the feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, perceive the "private home" as an "unchecked tyranny." For Goldberg, this charge isn't worth refuting. Straying from direct quotes, he claims that Wilson "believed the point of education was to make children as unlike their parents as possible." Even if we render this more accurately to say that education's point is to allow children to become as unlike their parents as they wish, I sense that Goldberg would still be appalled. This isn't really the time to debate the relative rights of parents and children under "American" or "European" values, however, since our question for today is: what did this have to do with the Presidential election?

Goldberg makes a demographic claim for the significance of the family-state tension. "If only married people voted," he writes, "Romney would have won in a landslide." While acknowledging that "obviously Obama got some votes from the married and the religious," he generalizes to identify Obama voters as "people who do not see family or religion as rival or superior sources of material aid or moral authority." Goldberg's own words could be taken to mean that Democrats, Progressives, etc. do not see a conflict between the family and the state, and that such a conflict is entirely in the eyes of Republican beholders. Nevertheless, these people prefer to "fall back" on the state rather than on families during hard times; their "first recourse is an appeal to the government" when government, in Goldberg's view, is more properly "reserved as a last resort." The issue, then, isn't who gets to mold kids' minds, but who you depend on when things get tough. We have unsustainable entitlement programs, one infers, because too many people lack strong family ties and see no reason not to turn to government. If this determines voting patterns, what short of compelling marriages and forcing people to keep up family ties can win presidential elections for Republicans?

There's some real basis for discussion in Goldberg's column to the extent that people's economic options and choices are influenced by family connections of any sort, but it's hard to agree with Goldberg's implicit claim that the voters of 2012 were choosing between the state and the family. Few people would claim that this was a "social issues" or "culture war" election. Those most likely to say so are those Republicans who think their party needs to give up those issues to win new demographic blocs. The real choice included a choice Goldberg doesn't even seem to want to write about. We can say in broadest terms that 2012 posed a choice between "public sector" and "private sector," but for most people "private sector" did not mean families. It meant the workplace, the realm of employers and employees, which most Republicans, I suspect, see as another "autonomous source of meaning" and, more than the family, "the chief place where we ... cooperate with others." Democrats most likely saw their choice not as one between state and family, but between state and bosses. In their worst nightmares, CEOs, rather than family patriarchs, define our values and determine our lives. To assert, as Goldberg does implicitly, that attitudes toward business determined no one's votes is to misrepresent not just the 2012 elections but the last century, at least, of political conflict in this country. Writing about family rather than business is not going to get to the bottom of the Republican problem, such as it is with the party still capable of thwarting the President. But maybe Goldberg just didn't want to make the problem worse.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I could counter by saying it might be as simple as that Americans, as a whole, don't trust repugnicans enough to vote for Romney, but don't trust democraps enough to vote them into complete power. Unfortunetly, they also don't trust themselves enough to come up with better, independent, non-partisan candidates.