Election 2010 and the meaning of America

OK, that last post was a bit melodramatic but it underscores the differences between my cultural sociological understanding of how politics work and Jason’s legalistic and strategic view.

In my mind, elections are not fundamentally about policy objectives or economic interests. Neither are they primarily about personalities or campaign strategies. Research shows time and time again that voters do not act in their own interest. Instead, as my mentor Jeffrey C. Alexander writes in his new book, “[p]olitical struggle is moral and emotional. It’s about ‘meaning,’ about symbolically ‘constructing’ candidates so they appear to be on the sunny rather than the shadowy side of the street…” (p. xii). I would go even further than Alexander. It isn’t just about constructing candidates who are seen to embody best of American values and strengths and opponents tainted by flaws (lack of patriotism, greed, dishonesty) which call their suitability for public office and even their American-ness into question. Elections (at least the ones we’ve had since 2000) are struggles over the meaning of the United States as a nation – who is in and who is out, the moral principles that are to guide policy and our true national priorities.

What is the meaning of the America that motivated the voters in November 2010 and what impact will that view have on the type of country we are going to be?

Lately I have put effort into watching Fox News with some regularity. I want to develop a more nuanced understanding of conservative viewpoints. I’ve attempted this undertaking a couple of times in the past.

A few years ago a family member and I were discussing national health care. I thought we were having a friendly debate but she began to shake with emotion and stormed away saying something like, “This is America. If you think that they do it so well in Sweden, you should just move there and leave America to the people who love this country.” I was shocked. Later, as we made amends, I said something like, “National health care is a complicated subject over which reasonable and well-intentioned people can disagree.” The thing is, while I spoke what I believed was the truth, I didn’t believe that this person was reasonable or well-intentioned in their hostility to universal care. Once I countered her socialism claims (so what? we already have medicare, social security, water districts, fire departments) her objections hinged on the added costs and limited access she would have if more people made use of the health care system.

In summer of 2008 I started feeling uneasy about the Democrats’ characterization of Republicans. Why should an entire political party suffer on account of one bad president? I reasoned that there have got to be some good ideas, some important insights, coming from the Right. I decided to watch the Republican National Convention. Instead of learning about great ideas, I heard Giuliani, former mayor of NYC, tearing down Obama for being a cosmopolitan. I heard a parade of important conservatives mocking community organizing, graduate school and the East Coast. According to the folks speaking at the RNC “latte liberals” and “Harvard elites” were out of touch with real Americans who wear Carhartts and live in small towns. By the time I finished watching the convention I concluded that the Republican Party was selling a view of America in which I was an interloper who might as well live in Paris or Hong Kong and whose un-American qualities were undermining the nation. Did it matter that in my own way I also love this country, its promise and ideals? Not in the least.

And recently I resolved to try again – watching Fox News to see if I could make sense of it all. The American people must be on to something, I reasoned. What is it all about? What is the motivation? What is the image of America, the dream of America that motivates the right?

The thing is, the more I watch the more I fail see how it is about more than exclusion, fear and greed. It is a view in which even legal immigrants are not true members of the nation and are suspected of being here only for personal gain (as if past immigrants came here because they loved America instead of coming to love American because of what they accomplished when they came). It is a view in which parents worry that it is possible to turn children gay by exposing them to the idea of homosexuality and otherwise “normal” homosexual people and the fear of Muslims guides policy and rhetoric – causing some to claim that no true American could practice Islam. It is view in which business owners and corporations should be able to pursue their self-interest unfettered by social responsibilities or even the requirement that they do their utmost to insure their worker’s safety (yes, there are calls to get rid of OSHA).

The more that I learn about the movement that drove election 2010 the more I feel that the meaning of America that has emerged cannot coexist with America as I would have it be. I would like an open unstratified system of medical care. I would like all hard-working Americans to receive a living wage. I would like Muslims to be at least as welcome at Ground Zero as pawn shops and Mexican Americans to be able to speak their home language without fear of being targeted as “illegals.” I would like an economic system that requires corporations doing business in this country to uphold our environmental regulations and worker protections wherever their manufacturing is.  Most of all, I would like an America where my localvore, anti-consumerist, commercial-free, globe-trotting children can go to school and learn the song “jesus loves me” from a classmate, go to a playdate at the home of another classmate with two moms and break the fast during Ramadan with yet another friend. In our family we talk about different people having different beliefs and practices. Although we experiences those differences in the extreme when we were in China, we continue to bump up against different moral paradigms and lifeways in instances as seemingly benign as the school book fair and “television households” and experiences as difficult as negotiating Santa Claus and the meaning of death. We talk with our children about the need to respect differences while staying true to our own values. We also talk with out children about the whys and the wherefores of how we live as a family, encourage them to be a part of the discussion and allow them to make some of their own reasoned moral choices. I hope that when they are adults they make intentional choices for themselves and I certainly hope they will have enough faith in their choices to be able to live peacefully with people who see and do things differently.

Please forgive me if I have become melodramatic again. Although I see the political process as a cultural sociologist, in the meanings negotiated in the 2010 election I also see my own exclusion.

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One Response to Election 2010 and the meaning of America

  1. mike says:

    if you had to fit China into US political “box”, where do you think most chinese people would fit; Conservative(which is not necessarily “right”). i find that judge napolitano has a good show for a “right winger”. you should also check out alex jones radio show to get out of seeing politics in the “right-left paradigm”.

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