Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why We Can't Have a Serious Talk

Last night, I read an article in the Washington Post about the recent electoral embarrassments that have been handed to Barack Obama in Democratic primaries in West Virginia, Arkansas and Kentucky.

Obama, of course, is the incumbent, and he has drawn no serious opposition for the Democrats' nomination. Consequently, some people apparently believe, the Democrats in the primaries that are being held late in the process should line up like good Democrats and vote for the incumbent.

Even if they have objections.

But the voters in West Virginia, Arkansas and Kentucky have thrown Obama an off–speed pitch when he was looking for a fastball. About two–fifths of the Democratic voters voted for token opposition — in West Virginia, that meant voting for an inmate who is presently incarcerated here in Texas — rather than for the president, who long ago secured his nomination.

The Post's Chris Cillizza writes that many Democrats have a ready excuse for the political resistance they have encountered within their own party — they "ascribe the underperformance by the incumbent to a very simple thing: racism."

Most Democrats speak disparagingly of George W. Bush. And I have no fondness for him, either.

But this is a tactic those Democrats share with Bush and his supporters — and they have been every bit as gleeful in its use and in anticipation of its power to squelch serious discussions.

Sure, it was disguised differently when Bush was president. In those not–so–distant days, anyone who disagreed with Bush on anything was labeled unpatriotic.

End of discussion. Once you have been tarred with that brush, you might as well stop trying.

No matter how strongly you may feel about the issue, no matter how many legitimate concerns you may have, no matter how many hours you may have spent arguing with yourself about it, if the other side has labeled you a racist or unpatriotic, there is nothing you can say to reverse that conclusion, no logic you can offer, no facts you can provide.

But that doesn't mean the allegation is true.

Oh, to be sure, there are people today who do permit race (or religion or gender or sexual preference or anything else) to determine how they will vote, just as there have always been people who were racist (or sexist or homophobic or whatever). And there are people among us who are not patriotic Americans — they have always been with us, too.

That's one of the drawbacks of living in a free society.

But it's not so easy to know who the racists and unpatriotic citizens are. In my experience, they usually don't advertise the fact or leave tell–tale clues behind. They might share their views with like–minded individuals, but they don't usually tend to share them with strangers.

"The problem with that theory," Cillizza writes, "is that it's almost entirely unprovable because it relies on assuming knowledge about voter motivations that — without being a mindreader — no one can know."

It's true that Obama lost all three of those states in 2008, and it is quite likely that he will lose all three in 2012. I don't see a racial backlash in these votes. I see a repeat of a phenomenon I have seen many times in the past — when a candidate locks up his party's nomination, disgruntled voters in the late primaries are emboldened to vote for any alternative on the ballot.

It's an electoral protest, and it should be taken seriously. My experience tells me Democrats shouldn't be dismissive about it.

In 1980 (when another Democrat president was running for re–election), I was living in Arkansas. Gov. Bill Clinton was seeking his second two–year term as governor. He looked like a sure thing. He was young and charismatic, and his only opponent in the party primary was a 77–year–old retired turkey farmer who barely scraped up enough money to pay the filing fee.

Clinton's opponent had no campaign staff or finances to speak of, but he received more than 30% of the vote when the Democrats held their primary.

The governor's staff and supporters insisted that it didn't mean a thing, and, in Arkansas, it was generally accepted that it really didn't mean much. Arkansans, after all, had elected only one Republican governor since Reconstruction.

But they elected another one that November — narrowly.

Both political extremes use the term fascism almost casually in their references to each other, which I find to be alarming — as well as an appalling display of an absence of knowledge.

Neither side is truly fascist — at least, not yet. But, with their blatant use of what Adolf Hitler called "the big lie," it is clear that it probably wouldn't take much to push either one over the edge.

"Make the lie big," Hitler said, "make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it."

It was a lie when Bush's supporters accused his detractors of being unpatriotic. It's a lie when Obama's supporters accuse his detractors of being racist.

It has a chilling effect on dissent, and that makes it one of the most anti–democratic (that's democrat with a lowercase d) assertions imaginable.

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