Friday, February 10, 2012

Discovering What It’s Like To Be a Partisan

Most of my life, I’ve been a political moderate. My father is a Rush Limbaugh Dittohead, his father before him was a Yellow Dog Democrat, but I’ve never felt particularly comfortable in either strongly liberal or strongly conservative circles. I’m a registered Democrat mostly because, back in college, the guy doing the voter registration drive was pushing very hard for me to register as a Republican. But since then, on both issues and candidates, I’ve sometimes favored the Republicans, sometimes the Democrats. And in political discussions, I’ve generally found that it’s easier for those discussions to be interesting and productive when the person on the other side isn’t swayed by party politics, and isn’t trying to ascribe unworthy motives to the other side while trying to pretend that they themselves are pure as the driven snow. My default position when it comes to controversies is to be fairly sober-minded, to try to see both sides of the picture, to be realistic about my own and others’ motives, and not to claim more for an argument than it really warrants. As you can imagine, this makes me a pretty bad Democrat, and probably an even worse Republican. My glee at the rise and ungainly fall of Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Perry has been anything but seemly. I’m annoyed at the inability of our congressional representatives to work together, and if there were an intelligent candidate somewhere in the political middle, ready both to cut spending and raise taxes to fix our fiscal woes, he or she would find it difficult to not get my vote.

However, several recent events have upended a great deal of my self-satisfied centrism. First, in what could only have been a cynical election year ploy to excite his base, Obama decided to make the Catholic Church pay for contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacients, in an obvious violation of several hundred years of American jurisprudence, along with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, not to mention the First Amendment. (And of course, it turns out that this did excite the base: but the wrong one.) Second, the Susan G. Komen Foundation first dropped their support of Planned Parenthood, and in the ensuing uproar, re-established it, their hand having been forced by the media’s blatantly one-sided coverage of the move.  And finally, when I pointed these things out to friends, and expressed my astonishment, I was repeatedly met with either blank stares or outright hostility. Folks simply didn’t get why I found these two things – the Obama administration’s trampling of the First Amendment, and the news media’s blatantly biased reporting on Susan G. Komen – so objectionable. And that shocked me. After all, if someone thought that it was wrong for the government to force a particular moral viewpoint on a woman carrying a child, shouldn’t they mutatis mutandis think that it was wrong for the government to force a particular moral viewpoint on Roman Catholics? But apparently they didn’t see any problem with that sort of government intrusion.

More than that, though, my arguments with them put me in a very odd position. I dislike the smell of partisan politics intensely. Nothing is so likely to turn me off in a debate as the realization that the other person not just thinks he’s right, but is convinced that that anyone with a different perspective is operating in bad faith and with impure motives. But that’s exactly what I’m convinced has happened in these two instances. Obama is an expert on Constitutional law: there’s no way that he couldn’t have realized that the HHS decision was a blatant violation the First Amendment (especially after taking a 9-0 shellacking from the Supreme Court on a closely related issue in Hosanna-Tabor just two weeks prior). The media prides itself on its objectivity: but take a look at this interview by Andrea Mitchell, and see if you think there’s any reasonable way you could describe it as fair and balanced.

The result is that I’ve started to feel quite differently about the Republicans, and all the nasty things they’ve been saying about the Obama administration. The strong emotions animating the Tea Party have been even more of a turn-off to me than the actual positions for which they’re advocating. But now that I’ve found myself backed into a political corner, it turns out that I’m suddenly as angry as, well, a Tea Party conservative. I’m unbelievably pissed-off that the Obama administration has decided that the ideology of secularism gets to operate from a privileged position: that our country is no longer pluralist, but actively and specifically secular: that I’m welcome to my religious beliefs only so long as they extend no further than the door of my church. The logic of the Obama administration and its defenders, that public expressions of religious beliefs must always give way to the power of the state, is astonishingly similar to that of the Chinese government. This is a big hairy deal, in other words, and it represents a breathtaking invasion by the federal government into the realm of ultimate truth. It makes me angry to think about it. It’s not right, and Obama should have known better. The realization that he actually thinks this way has revealed a yawning, probably unbridgeable gap between his worldview and mine. He can talk about his respect for religion all he wants: but when it comes right down to it, it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t respect any religion so long as it insists upon actual truth claims about the fundamental nature of God, humanity and the world (in other words, all of them). I will not vote for any president who thinks that way, and I’m going to be a damned sight more suspicious of anything he says going forward.

As a side note, I was gratified to hear that as of this morning, Obama has more-or-less backed down, and is offering a compromise. But in the spirit of my newfound hermeneutic of suspicion, it’s worth pointing out that in his press conference, he baldly lied about the state of the rule-making process. The proposed compromise was not, as he portrayed it, a “speeding up” of a process already under way, but an actual change in the actual rule, a political volte-face after realizing that he’d just managed to push a whole bunch of fence-sitters like myself firmly into the waiting arms of his conservative opponents. And it’s also worth noting that the changes he has proposed seem to be purely verbal: see this analysis, which calls it “economic nonsense”; or this one, or this, which wonder how insurance companies could possibly avoid using premiums from their Catholic clients to pay for contraceptive coverage. As Robert Miller puts it:

Under the old rule, the employer had to pay for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraception. Under the new rule, the employer has to pay for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraception, but President Obama will say that it doesn’t, and we’ll believe him. That fixes everything. And to think, some people accuse President Obama of empty rhetoric.

That’s the sort of wonderfully snarky comment that would have gotten my dander up in the old days (i.e., two weeks ago), but sounds pretty good to me right now.

Moving on, when you layer the Susan G. Komen debacle onto the contraception controversy, it’s made me increasingly suspicious of anything the media has to say as well. I’ve found myself reading a variety of conservative blogs that critique the media’s portrayal of religion, and I’m a little astonished at how much sense they make. You can make the case (as liberals often do) that the mass media is owned by corporations, and hence are likely to present a conservative slant on economic issues. That may or may not be the case: but there’s no remaining doubt in my mind which direction the media leans when covering social and religious issues. This bias shows up in a thousand subtle and blatant ways, and ranges from the scare quotes around “religious liberty” in the third paragraph of this article, to the numerous mistakes of fact in this article, and the decision by the Dallas Morning News to feature a dozen protesters of Susan G. Komen’s decision on the front page, after having completely ignored an 8000-person March for Life the previous month.

So here’s the first thing. Like I said, I’m angry at Obama, and I’m newly suspicious of the news media. I’m in no mood to compromise, and right now, I’d love to see Obama filing for unemployment because of his attempted betrayal of the First Amendment. And I guess that makes me a conservative.

But here’s the other thing. For perhaps the first time in my life, I understand what a political partisan feels like. I now know what it means to be angry and frustrated, because you’re so convinced that you’re right and that your opponents are mulish and stubborn miscreants. And I know that folks on both sides feel like that. I’m able to understand a great deal of why folks on both the right and the left respond the way they do to each other. I sympathize with the partisans. I get it now. I feel their pain. And I guess that makes me a liberal.

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