October 13, 2008

With Grave Concerns

Something like 8 of my last 11 posts have been somehow related to the upcoming election. I continue to think that it has the potential to be one of the most important elections in a generation. I'm a little uncertain of employing that kind of rhetoric without qualifications. Many elections, even recent ones, have had that same potential, and this one may or may not live up to the possibilities. I posted a few months ago about what made this election so different, and that was even before McCain added Gov. Palin to his ticket.

I don't remember whether I ever mentioned this on my blog or not, but I was pretty happy with the state of the election back when McCain had won the Republican nomination and then Obama finally edged Clinton out of the Democratic ring. It seemed like a uniformly hopeful election to me. In light of the past two elections, and the ugliness of the pre-primary playing field, things seemed to have turned out rather well. In a country that has seemed increasingly polarized between red and blue, both candidates felt like relatively healthy shades of purple.

McCain was the moderate Republican, the one who avoided the Coulter-esque rhetoric of his party, unlike Giuliani or Romney or the current presidential administration. Obama wasn't Hillary (though I may be damning him with faint praise there), and, what's more, he was (and remains) an inspiring figure to an enormous segment of the population.

Then, somewhere between Hillary's defeat and the Republican National Convention, McCain lost his way. I don't really know when or how it happened, but at this point I think it is pretty undeniable that he has lost sight of the principles he started with as he felt the presidency slipping through his fingers. In those intervening months, McCain (and especially his slimy running mate) has turned increasingly to mudslinging tactics, extreme jingoistic rhetoric, and preying upon the emotional fragility of the voting public. And it's not all McCain's doing, either. Despicable e-mail forwards crowd my inbox, and the pile grows every day: a frightening smoke-screen of manipulative lies perpetrated by the conservative base. The election has turned ugly.

I don't really have enough experience to comment definitively on the precedent for the sort of things that are happening at McCain campaign rallies (as detailed in the above stories). However, I would venture to say that there is a level of fear and anger among conservative voters that has not been seen in a long time, perhaps even since the 1960s. If you're paying attention to the news, you're probably thinking now of the comments by John Lewis (which McCain has criticized so shrilly). McCain's outrage aside (and, really, how else can he respond?) I think Lewis has a valid observation.

I should pause for a moment and applaud McCain for standing up to his own constituency and counseling calm respect and sanity towards his opponent. That's a glimpse of the McCain that I liked a few months ago. Still, when his campaign, including his running mate, are so busily whipping up a frenzy with crap like this Ayers terrorism connection, what does he expect? If he can somehow calm the angry white vote during the next few weeks, that will be a real feat of leadership.

No matter who wins the election next month, there are going to be whole demographics of angry voters who will suddenly feel very marginalized and threatened, and I think we should be ready to see them lash out when that happens. If (and I am still tempted to say "when") Obama wins, those voters will largely be white, conservative, perhaps Christian Americans who have been fed a pack of possibly the most irresponsible falsehoods ever spread about a candidate. These are people who do not understand anyone who is different from themselves, and who are afraid that their president may be a terrorist and a foreigner who wants to take away their freedoms (in the form of things like guns and religion) and maybe even ultimately their lives.

Understand here that I am not necessarily speaking of anyone that I know, or know of, or have encountered. I'm talking about the people at these McCain rallies who read somewhere that Obama is an Arab, and who are shouting out things like "terrorist" and "kill him." What worries me, though, is that they are not as much on the fringe as they ought to be. After all, I am getting some of these e-mail forwards from people I know, even people who should know better. I am hearing some unwarranted fear and hatred in gatherings with Christian friends. Above all, there is a genuine (and misguided) shock that the Obama these people think they have pegged (a man who does not, in fact, exist) is days away from cinching the presidency.

I understand the source of a lot of these emotions, and some of the criticism I hear is not unfounded, certainly. But the irrational, baseless fear of Obama is strong, and it is undeniably a product of some combination of ignorance and blind prejudice of a sort that I have not seen directed at any presidential candidate in my lifetime . . . even Clinton at the height of the Lewinsky scandal.

Despite these strong, raw emotions, I believe that Obama will still win this election, possibly even by a margin larger than any we have seen in 10-20 years. However, if he doesn't, that, too, will prompt a reaction. I think that an Obama loss will prompt outrage among certain segments of the black community, and a dull disillusionment among the more idealistic liberals (like the reaction to Gore's loss in 2000, but stronger). Because a McCain win would resemble a punch to the gut for those on the left, while an Obama win might be characterized more as witnessing a sacrilege, it is possible that the response of Obama supporters might be more muted if they lose. However, it would be unwise (though, at this point, politically correct) to overlook the volatile role that race may still have to play in these proceedings. I'm just saying.

If I seem more concerned about behavior from the McCain camp, it is for three reasons: First, the possibility of a volatile reaction to an Obama loss has bee floating around for quite some time now, while I think anger and fear about an Obama win has only reached a fever pitch within the past few weeks. Second, as I keep saying, I really feel like a McCain loss is the overwhelming likelihood at this point. Third, until he cinched the nomination, McCain was not viewed with a great deal of sympathy by the right. There have got to be a lot of people, at this point, who are voting against Obama, and because that is the case, McCain may not have a lot of "pull" when he tries to allay the fear and prejudice of those voters. In any case, I hope both candidates will be working overtime, both in the days leading up to and the days following the election, to calm the voters down regardless of the outcome.

Also, I hope that nobody I know, at least, is voting for McCain because they are afraid of Obama, or because they are afraid of those who are. The former is foolish, and the latter is perfidious. Do what you think is right, certainly, but don't do it for the wrong reasons.

Posted by Jared at October 13, 2008 09:07 PM | TrackBack