Friday, November 16, 2012

Insulting Narratives, Civic Virtue, and the Truth about Democrats and Republicans

In the election aftermath there has been extensive analysis, by both Democrats and Republicans, over how and why Romney's bid failed so decisively to unseat an incumbent that everyone acknowledged was vulnerable. Much of this analysis, from both sides of the aisle, has been spot-on, I think.

But there is one particularly popular narrative that is not. It is a narrative that favors divisiveness over accuracy, and it revamps tropes used to attack Obama and the Democrats. Ed Whelan offers a good example of it when he says the following: "As the Framers understood, self-government depends on a virtuous citizenry. Instead, we have a growing mass of citizens seemingly wedded to dependency on big-government spending."

I'm not sure if Whelan means to include a vibrant system of public education under the rubric of "big government"--because if he does, then big government and what it hands out (in this case a basic standard of education for all citizens) is integral to creating the kind of citizenry who can meaningfully participate in deliberative democracy. So I'll assume he doesn't mean this. Rather, he's playing to the notion, not of a government that provides people with the resources to achieve success if they're willing to work for it, but of a government that provides handout to those who are unwilling to care for themselves.

If this is what he and others making similar comments are talking about, their analysis of the election amounts to this: Obama won by securing the vote of government moochers, who are supposedly such a large part of the American electorate that they could outvote those who work for a living.

Let's just be clear about this. This is not a substantive analysis of why Romney lost. More than 50% of Americans are slackers and moochers who don't want to lose their government handouts? Really?

If so, I haven't met any of this 50% of the American electorate. And if it's 50% of the electorate, it's gotta be a higher percentage among Democrats, right? Funny, then, that of all my Democratic-voting friends, not a single one fits this moocher label. Instead, they look like this:

A woman who works as a freelance journalist, whose husband is an engineer, and who does not rely on government assistance.

An assistant pastor of a large church who drives an hour every day to teach multiple college courses at a university in a neighboring town.

A college professor who spends a bit too much time at work because he's over-committed himself to too many professional projects at once.

A hard-working librarian married to a church secretary, raising three children on limited resources, and not pursuing government handouts--but grateful that Obamacare ensures that health insurance companies will no longer be able to deny coverage for their daughter with juvenile arthritis based on her "preexisting condition."

A hard-working psychologist and loving father who, among other things, treats veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

A special ed teacher at an elementary school who loves working with the kids but is frustrated by the bureaucratic regulations and mandated testing that sometimes get in the way of doing her best for her students.

An honors student at a public university who is constantly busy with student organizations, serving as an officer in several of them, and who is thinking of going to law school.

I could go on. But the point should clear enough. The "moocher" story may make some of those who dislike the outcome of the election feel better, but it does so at the expense of all the hard-working people who are inaccurately slapped with the moocher label. And the moocher story won't help the Republican party move into the future. To the extent that it takes hold, it will only succeed in magnifying animosity across party lines, further polarizing our electorate.

Ed Whelan is right that self-government depends on a virtuous citizenry. But among the virtues essential for self-government are those that call for a fair and honest assessment of our political rivals, an appreciation of their strengths as well as of their weaknesses, and a willingness to accept the results of the democratic process and work productively within them--perhaps as a voice of loyal opposition--even if one is disappointed by those results.

Civility--especially across party lines--is a crucial virtue for a people who hope to practice "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." To that end, I want to say something about those I know who voted against Obama. Here's what some of them look like:

A painter who struggled for years just scraping by, never giving up, until his remarkable talent finally began to be recognized and he was able to go on to be highly successful.

A young woman raising two children by herself, not relying on government handouts, and maintaining good humor and kindness during even the most trying periods.

A special ed teacher who works tirelessly with some of the most emotionally disturbed students and who volunteers every summer to help build homes for the needy.

An insurance salesman who is one of the warmest, most devoted fathers I have seen.

A Vietnam veteran who, in his retirement, is a devoted grandfather and an equally devoted parent to a pair of happy dogs, and who works tirelessly to maintain a meticulous home and property.

A neurologist fighting the last stages of cancer, who always has a laugh and a warm smile for his friends.

A retired high school principal with a big laugh and a big heart, who loves his kids and grandkids, and who openly wept when his father-in-law died.

When I wrote Is God a Delusion? I did so in part to challenge the idea that the divide between theists and atheists is somehow a divide between decent human beings and defective ones. I wanted to make the case--both in the face of the New Atheist vilification of religion and (to a lesser extent in that book) the fundamentalist vilification of non-believers--that reasonableness and moral decency are not the sole province of atheists or theists. There are human beings on either side of that divide who display all of the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of which human beings are capable.

Likewise for the divide between Democrats and Republicans, between the political right and the political left. And keeping that truth clearly in our minds--even as we vigorously disagree with one another, even as we criticize each other's policies and practices--is one of the most central virtues of any society which hopes to practice self-government.


  1. A much needed post, thank you.

  2. Why don't you write a post that condemns the progressives proclivity to ascribe all motivations of conservatives to "racism"? I'm sick of being called a racist just because I don't bow in worship before Barack Hussein Obama. I'm a working class white male; you know, the source of all injustice and oppression (at least that's what you academics say). A "teabagger". "White trash". "Redneck". Or whatever hateful epithet the tolerance and diversity crowd comes up with.

    1. AndreLinoge,

      I thought it was obvious from this very post that I am condemning sweeping generalizations of people who vote on one side of the political divide or the other. That condemnation extends to any tendency to dub all political conservatives racist. But just to be clear, none of the people on my list of people who voted against Obama are, to my knowledge, racist.

      By the way, the view along these lines that I've heard most often among progressives is not "All Republicans/conservatives are racists." Rather, it's this: "While not all Republicans are racists, most racists are Republicans--and the Republican party has too often found ways to subtly pander to covert racist feelings in its constituency." That is a more important charge for Republicans to respond to than the obviously false one that all conservative motivations are racist. I would encourage you not to dismiss this more subtle charge by caricaturing it. The caricature--that all conservative motives are racist--is clearly and obviously false. The more nuanced charge may well be false as well. But if it is, it's not because the caricature is false.

      I mention this in part because your comment leaves me with the impression that you are in the habit of caricaturing your opponents' views and then attacking them. For example, you accuse "us academics" of treating working-class white males of being the source of all injustice and oppression. In fact, no self-respecting academic (most of them white males who work for a living) would say any such thing. And any who did say this in their academic work would be guaranteed not to have that work accepted into a peer-reviewed academic journal (upon which career advancement depends). However, some academics have said things that might be caricatured in the terms that you offer here. The views that motivate such caricatures might be wrong. But if they are, it isn't because the caricatured view you attribute to "us academics" is false (and it clearly IS false, and quite obviously false, to say of working class white males in general that they are the source of all injustice and oppression).