The Loveless Election: Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Being Burned Alive at the Stake
Tuesday night, as I sat at a friend's house with what we call the Posse Facultatus watching the election results trickle in, I came up with quite possibly the best – and probably the most seditious – idea I've had in a long time. Dr Arliss Loveless, the villain of the movie Wild Wild West, had something close to a vision of the future of the US.
In my addled mind on Tuesday – addled by a day of driving halfway across central Pennsylvania and getting out the vote in something resembling three languages – I recalled that in Wild Wild West, Dr Loveless, the beaten-down Confederate general left behind and without legs, had a plan to give American territories back to their original colonial masters (save for clearly defined Native American lands, which would revert to them, and a certain check of the Prairies that he would keep for his giant mechanical spider). And while I've been saying that perhaps Texas should be spun off into its own country (since it's been telling us that it already is for 150 years), and maybe Florida should return to Spanish control, I hadn't realized the pure genius of Loveless' plan.
Why not, I said, split the US into three separate countries? It already seems to be operating that way, if one believes the electoral vote maps that plastered the screens Tuesday night, and if one really looks at the county-by-county voting results. The West Coast – and by this, I mean the coastal areas, since Bush Country starts 75 miles inland, even in California – would be one country; the Northeast and Great Lakes states (save Ohio) would be a second; and the rest of the country would form a third. The benefits are vast: No more obnoxious culture wars (which, at long last, may be losing their scare quote marks); the "liberal media" could stick to their own sectors of the continent, leaving Fox News to control the entire middle section (as it seems to already); everyone's got at least some access to bodies of water and shipping lanes, even if it would be a bit of a hike for Wyoming; and the rugged individualists of the middle section of the country could stop worrying about what us Pinko Commie Gay-Loving Abortion-Giving Bastards living right along the coasts are going to try to shove down their throats.
In reality, as many others have pointed out already, there are two nations at work, both with entirely different concerns in the world. (One can't have that much land between two halves of the country, really. That's why I'm going with three in my plan.) One America is utterly concerned with what could eventually become class issues – the power of capitalists to move money and jobs across national boundaries; the increasing deskilling of work; the utter demise of whatever remained of the Fordist bargain between labor and capitalists so that workers could at least afford all the crap they're being sold; and the obvious increase in benefits going to the wealthy on the backs of the poor. The exit polls I've studied – which occupied most of my Wednesday – showed, though, that these aren't yet class interests. People are concerned with their jobs, their salaries, their debt loads, but not the condition of the working class in general just yet. This America sees that on some level, we're all being screwed and wants to stop it, though they're not ready to say they're doing it for us all.
The other America is completely worried with the fact that other people do things "different" from them. They worry about male-male or female-female couples kissing and cohabitating, women having abortions, folks not goin' to church on Sundays, courts taking "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance, and people having different viewpoints than them, and are willing to utterly screw themselves over for the sake of electing someone who says that they're concerned with the same sorts of things. The citizens of this America privilege "moral values" over all else; and as soon as someone shows they've got the same values, nothing else matters. It doesn't matter that this America's candidate, ever tough on terror, let the number one terrorist slip away; that this candidate covered up the pre-Iraq War II lies about weapons of mass destruction with an Alfred E Newman "who, me?" grin, that this candidate who sends their kids or neighbor's kids into a senseless and bloody war dodged the same kind of conflict, or that the only middle-class people this candidate cares about are... well, who knows who they are. Their candidate is a God-fearin' man, and that's all that matters. And they insist that we all join them on that bandwagon to heaven.
Now, the Democrats are all about rethinking their electoral strategy. The discussion is now turning to the extent to which they need to speak to this second America in their own language. Should we begin using a language of morality to talk about what we want to do? Have we lost the moral ground to the Republicans? What can we do to get them back? How can we not become irrelevant in this new era of conservatism?
My advice to the Democrats: Forget the values talk. Too often the Right has interpellated the Left's language in order to set the political agenda. Affirmative Action? Reverse discrimination. Multiculturalism in higher education? Intellectual diversity. The Left can no longer afford to get wrapped up in the Right's way of framing issues. Every candidate since Teflon Bill Clinton who has tried to transform the Democrats into the left wing of the Republican Party has failed. And despite the fact that a number of more moderate and liberal Christians are arguing that more needs to be done to treat poverty and illness as religious issues, I fear this has about as much a chance of becoming the common, or even the Democratic, parlance as liberation theology became the Vatican's. The Republican Right owns the moral low ground, and the Left has no basis for taking it back any time soon. There's no reason to try. In a battle between Barack Obama and Jesus Christ, Jesus takes it every day of the week.
No, what the Left needs to do now is to develop an entirely different way of framing the issues facing the US. Perhaps that will be on the basis of class; perhaps it will be on the basis of some other set of ideas. But whatever happens during this Democratic navel-gazing period, one thing is clear: Democrats and the broader Left need to figure out some way to provide a clear alternative – not a supposed alternative, á la the Kerry alternative, but a genuine alternative – to the Republicans' return to the 18th century moral fabric of America. We need to figure out a way to speak to the interests of those in the red zones of the country to make them trulyRed. We need to develop a language for convincing them to act in their real interests, not in the interests of being up in everyone else's business. If we don't (and, depending on how things shake out with the Supreme Court, perhaps even if we do), then we should be ready to face a return to the Puritans of the early years of the Republic.
If we can't figure out a new way to frame the problems of the US, we've got two choices. Split the country into three, or learn to love the postmodern equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition.
Scott Schaffer is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, and a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.