Thursday, November 4, 2010

Thoughts After the Election

The following are random thoughts on the election yesterday, which, for the most part, reflects my disappointment and despair, although not much in the way of surprise.

Iowa is a conservative state. Not a Republican state, but a conservative state. We don’t go easily for change. Only one incumbent, Democrat or Republican on the statewide or federal ticket, was defeated. The defeated incumbent, Chet Culver, was replaced by a man who previously served sixteen years in the job! Also, note that both U.S. senators, one an old school Republican and the other a liberal Democrat, have both held office nearly forever. The great exception to this, of course, is the defeat of our three Supreme Court justices who were selected at random to be (figuratively) executed as an example to other judges not to drag Iowans into the 21st century. They dragged Iowa into the future when they ruled that our fundamental law requires the state to extend the benefits of marriage to gays. I don’t take these results as especially homophobic (although in some measure this is certainly true), but it does reflect a deep-seated conservatism and resentment. The resentment is seen by comparing results from Johnson and other larger Iowa counties with the more rural and poorer western counties, where voters more likely supported the summary executions for their audacity.

The electorate, taken as a whole, seems more and more like a petulant child that stomps its foot when it doesn’t get what it wants when it wants it. In 2008 it went center-left (Obama is nothing if not a centrist), and now it wants to veer sharply to the right. This makes no sense. Clotaire Rapaille in The Culture Code suggests that the U.S. is an adolescent country, and I bristled a bit at that, but I think this election demonstrates the truth of his contention. People are unhappy because Obama and the Congress couldn’t deliver a miracle, because that’s what it would have taken to undo the Bush mess. Of course, this may be endemic to democracy. Look at the French, unhappy that they can’t keep early retirement. Sorry, folks, we’re living too long and have too many bills! So maybe this crazy inconsistency is attributable to democracy anywhere and not just in the U.S.

Democracy, as we practice it today, isn’t so great. I happened to read about Socrates and his death at the hands of an Athenian jury again this morning. It struck me: a democracy put to death a good man (and one we’d label a great man) because he questioned the local pieties and prejudices. Next to Jesus and perhaps St. Paul, Socrates holds the greatest sway over Western culture, yet he died at the hands of a democracy, at the direction of the popular will. There are much worse systems of government out there, all worse in some way, but let’s not think that our contemporary U.S. democracy is so great. It gets by. It does so despite degrading the level of public discourse. Consider many of the television commercials aired: they insult the intelligence; they either lie outright or seek to deceive. This goes for both parties, although I honestly think that Republicans are better at it and more comfortable with it. Are unflattering images and less than complete sentences what we should base our decisions upon?

The bad news is, in some view, good news. The fickle electorate will change likely. Remember 1994. Maureen Dowd’s column today serves as a reminder of how the more things change the more that they stay the same. One can only hope that Republicans will remain as foolish. Obama should not be finished. He just needs to play the game adeptly and aggressively. Clinton did and won despite his personal shortcomings. I just hope that not too much damage gets done in the mean time.