Monday, November 12, 2012

The Personal and the Political

Why do people care so much about politics?

Nice account in the Post of a Romney volunteer in Tennessee, showing the conflation of the personal with the political that makes elections so powerful:
It was a demographic that, in so many other places, would have voted for Obama: white women, college-educated and in their early-to-mid-20s, most of them upper-middle class. But here they had almost all voted for Romney, and they consoled each other as they entered the room. Cox joined them in the circle and bent her head in prayer.

“Yes, Lord,” she said. “We are saying yes to honoring you, but no to the junk of this world, to the wickedness, the self-gratification, the path that we are just saddened by. We choose your path, Lord.”

It was a path that had worked for her, providing strength and stability during her parents’ rocky divorce, and then helping her transform from a stubbornly independent woman — the “feminist, I-am-woman, hear-me-roar type,” she said — into a mother and a wife who respected what she called the “natural order of the household.” She had two beautiful daughters who earned A’s and a husband who took time off from his job as a pastor for annual family “playcations” to museums and amusement parks. Local Republicans were encouraging her to run for state office, but she didn’t want to give up her volunteering, her scrapbooking, her weekend getaways with her daughters — her “Godly life,” she said.
What people like Beth Cox seem to want from elections is validation that their path is the right one, and that the rest of the country thinks and feels as they do. Romney's loss makes them feel that their whole way of life is despised; that they are strangers in their own country.

One thing a more unified and traditional society provides to its members is support for leading the traditional life. People have less freedom to make their own lives, but on the other hand they constantly get the message that the life they are leading is the right one, ennobled by tradition, ordained by the gods. We, by contrast, have to make our own lives and choose our own paths. This is not only difficult, it means that we must do without the constant affirmation we would get from doing what everyone else is doing. So many of us worry all the time that we are not doing the right thing. This anxiety leads us to look eagerly for signs that our path is right, and to bristle at any suggestion that it is wrong.

It is this thirst for affirmation, I think, that drives our political enthusiasm. But it is the way of democracy that parties alternate in power. This means it is a very bad idea to tie your own identity, your own self-esteem, too tightly to the success of your party. It pays to be a little cynical, to remember how little thought many people give to their votes, and how little the people you vote for may care about the issues dearest to your heart. I know perfectly well that what I think is the most important thing Obama has done, ending Bush's torture policy, mattered not a bit to 90 percent of his voters. I am thrilled that Obama won, but I know his victory is not really an endorsement of me.


Unknown said...

It is true that identity plays a huge role in contemporary US politics, but I think that is so mostly in reference specifically to a southern, white, evangelical identity--that is, identity politics are a mainstay of the Republicans. The Dems seem to me relatively tepid when it comes to identity politics. The impression I get is many key Dem constituencies vote Dem because of specific legal provisions that Dems back, that are of interest to that constituency, as in immigration reform, equal voting rights protections, protection of abortion rights, etc. The Dems have been very careful, for example, to avoid identifying their party with Black culture. Remember Clinton's denunciation of Sister Souljah?

GOP identity politics of course tends to put large numbers of nonwhites, women, and gay people in the Dem column, but that is a largely negative choice. The Dems are not on the way to becoming the party of gay identity.

The GOP is becoming increasingly the party of southern white identity. This is key to their recent eclipse in much of the nation; since feeling isolated and persecuted within the broader nation is crucial to that identity, I suspect that this will become an self-reinforcing cycle.

leif said...

accurate comment. i find myself constantly amazed, though not surprised, that identity and politics have become conflated, as john put it. it's not a far throw from merging religion and politics, clearly a tactic in heavy use in this country.