The 2008 Election & The Culture War

The American economy has been strained to the breaking point by eight years of reckless fiscal policies. Our international stature has been compromised and diminished by arrogant and unilateral foreign policies. Our government has helped create a global energy crisis, and has done nothing about climate change. You could be forgiven for assuming that those issues are central to the upcoming elections, but I’m going to suggest that war and peace, economic prosperity and even national self-respect are in a very real sense subsidiary to what is truly at stake on November 4th. 

This election is a contest between the past and the future; its outcome will determine whether Enlightenment rationalism or religious fundamentalism prevails. In short, this is the election that will determine who wins the “culture wars.”

There are some arenas where the culture clash is front and center; even James Dobson has said that losing the referendum on same-sex marriage in California would mean that the Christian Right has unambiguously lost the culture war. But the conflict is more consequential than the future of same-sex marriage and gay rights, important as that is. This election will determine who gets to control what America will look like in the 21st century. It is a fight between absolutely incompatible worldviews.

I’d been convinced for some time that this election would be a fateful battle between culture warriors, but the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate confirmed my thesis.  I don’t say this simply because Palin represents everything that is wrong with social conservatives’ ideology, although she does. (She’s anti-choice even in cases of rape or incest, she opposes stem-cell research, she’s anti-gay, and she’s really anti-science—she’s an advocate of teaching creationism in the schools who does not believe that human activities contribute to global warming).

I also don’t say this simply because her social conservatism was more important to John McCain than her absolute lack of any qualification to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency.

I say this because her selection was part and parcel of the way in which culture warriors really see the issue of gender—and by extension, how they see every other issue of diversity, including but certainly not limited to gays and lesbians.

Think about it. Had McCain chosen a male running-mate with Sarah Palin’s resume, the choice would have been laughed off the national stage, dismissed as absolutely unserious. Tim Pawlenty, the equally socially conservative Minnesota governor who was on the McCain short list, was widely criticized for being too insubstantial, for having qualifications too likely to be dwarfed by Biden’s greater experience and gravitas. And Pawlenty looks like a seasoned elder statesman compared to Palen. What, then, did she bring to the table, other than (excuse me) a vagina? And just how cynical—and revealing—does that make this selection?

Here’s the calculus as I see McCain’s folks analyzing it: 1) a lot of women voted for Hillary; 2) social conservatives in the GOP base still aren’t excited by McCain. We can energize the base by choosing one of their own, and as a  bonus, we can pick up disappointed Hillary voters because she’s a woman, and women are interchangeable. Women just want to see someone who looks like them in office, bless their pretty little heads.  It seems genuinely never to have occurred to the McCain camp that for women voters to believe that a candidate “looks like them” might require more than shared secondary sexual characteristics.  At the very least, it means sharing a particular worldview, being a particular kind of woman.

The Christian Right approaches issues of gay equality the same way, by constructing a monolithic “gay agenda” that everyone in the gay community is assumed to share. It is also the way they see African-Americans—and in fact, as one friend of mine remarked, the choice of Palin is based on precisely the same worldview that put Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. He’s black, so the black folks should be happy. So what if everything Thomas stands for is in stark contrast to what the vast majority of African-Americans believe? So what if Sarah Palin’s positions are profoundly anti-woman? She’s female. Surely that’s all Hillary’s supporters—and by extension, other women—care about.

It is ironic that, as the Democratic party has moved past tokenism toward genuinely pluralist politics, the Republicans have bought into the worst kind of identity politics. Those differences between contemporary Republican and Democratic worldviews are consequential for all of us.

  • The emerging Democratic philosophy requires that we look at individuals—gay, straight, Christian, Jewish, black or white—and evaluate those individuals on their merits, their talents, their characters. It isn’t that race or religion or gender or orientation becomes irrelevant;  it’s just that those markers of identity aren’t material—they’re just one aspect of this particular human being, and we are grading this human being on the basis of everything he or she brings to the table. Everybody gets to compete on a level playing field, where being gay, female or purple is neither an asset nor a liability. It’s simply a description.
  • The worldview of the right-wingers who control today’s GOP, on the other hand, is paternalistic. It begins by assigning people to categories, by dividing the world into “us versus them.” Members of the group labeled “us” are the elect, the rightful rulers of the universe. Political considerations do, however, require some concessions to the fact that “they” have the right to vote, and so some tokenism is required. (It never seems to occur to those holding this worldview that tokenism is as insulting as outright bigotry. Tokenism assumes that members of those “other” groups are interchangeable, that unlike white Protestant straight males, they are not entitled to be accepted or rejected on the basis of their individual merits.) When you view the political landscape through this lens, you believe every debate must have winners and losers. There is no “win-win.” There is no “live and let live,” because allowing people to live their lives in accordance with any rules other than your own is—by definition—defeat.

At its base, this election is a choice between those two worldviews. It’s a choice between the past—where the color of your skin, the denomination of your church, your gender and/or your sexual orientation determined your place in the social order—and a future where behavior, and not identity, determines how far a person can go.