Lately, I’ve been on the road a lot for speaking engagements, the proximate cause of a temporary lapse in my blogging. But I could have squeezed it in somehow: I’ve often spent airport hours blogging or eased my re-entry home with a new essay. Truth be told, this political moment has left me at a rare loss for words.
You see, I had lots of airplane time to catch up on reading, and until now, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling of being appalled into silence by what I read. Among many unsettling articles about Mitt Romney, Nicholas Lemann’s New Yorker piece on the candidate’s history stands out. It portrays Romney—convincingly, with devastating documentation—as a person who has been insulated both by privilege and by his total immersion in a world narrowly bounded by religious orthodoxies, and who has been led to believe in his own entitlement to rule. The utter ruthlessness of his work at Bain Capital is well-documented, but Lemann explains that Romney’s self-image easily resists the facts: “In his own mind,” Lemann writes, “he is a master chief executive who started a very successful business that brought a particular approach to problems—not a guy who used debt to buy and resell businesses.”
I am not easily frightened by political scare tactics: after all, I’ve been exposed for so long, I’ve developed a certain immunity. I understand that our culture of national electoral politics runs on fear. It’s usually quite easy to see who is trying to terrorize me and why. But this time is different. What’s frightening me is not some artifact of a campaign, but the candidate himself and what his party wishes to do with the power of the presidency.
Every time I imagine the prospect of a Romney presidency, I think of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood excels at dystopian fiction (if you’re as suggestible as I am, don’t read Oryx and Crake before you go to sleep). In The Handmaid’s Tale, a far-right putatively Christian conspiracy has overthrown the U.S. government, employing high-tech tools, a faux terrorist attack, and the usual thuggery to suspend civil liberties and seize assets. The central focus of the novel is the position of women under the new theocracy: women have been deprived of their rights and forced into a rigidly stratified social order in which—fertility rates having plummeted—the ability to conceive and carry a child to term becomes a material asset.
It’s not that I think Romney and company are planning to suspend the Constitution, literally enacting the plot of Atwood’s novel. But I have no doubt that the novel’s symbolic landscape captures his party’s positions on the rights of women and sexual minorities, and that is reason to fear.
In its endorsement of President Obama, The New Yorker says we ought to take Romney at his word, and I agree:
In pursuit of swing voters, Romney and Ryan have sought to tamp down, and keep vague, the extremism of their economic and social commitments. But their signals to the Republican base and to the Tea Party are easily read: whatever was accomplished under Obama will be reversed or stifled. Bill Clinton has rightly pointed out that most Presidents set about fulfilling their campaign promises. Romney, despite his pose of chiselled equanimity, has pledged to ravage the safety net, oppose progress on marriage equality, ignore all warnings of ecological disaster, dismantle health-care reform, and appoint right-wing judges to the courts. Four of the nine Supreme Court Justices are in their seventies; a Romney Administration may well have a chance to replace two of the more liberal incumbents, and Romney’s adviser in judicial affairs is the embittered far-right judge and legal scholar Robert Bork. The rightward drift of a court led by Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito—a drift marked by appalling decisions like Citizens United—would only intensify during a Romney Presidency. The consolidation of a hard-right majority would be a mortal threat to the ability of women to make their own decisions about contraception and pregnancy, the ability of institutions to alleviate the baneful legacies of past oppression and present prejudice, and the ability of American democracy to insulate itself from the corrupt domination of unlimited, anonymous money. Romney has pronounced himself “severely conservative.” There is every reason to believe him.
Recent polls have been saying that Romney is closing the gender gap, eroding President Obama’s lead with female voters. I am strongly committed to the quest to understand differences of opinion. I resist the pervasive trend toward kneejerk dismissal of those who seem to vote against their own interests. I can’t see much to be gained in calling rank-and-file Tea Party types stupid. I’ve found it useful to consider analyses of the deep moral values underlying their political positions, even though I disagree with them. I’ve written before about Jonathan Haidt’s analysis of these differences, for instance.
So I’ve been trying to understand. But truly, right now I don’t get it. If the gender-gap polls are correct (and that’s a big if), I don’t get how it is possible for increasing numbers of women to decide to place trust in Romney to protect their liberty—let alone extend it to true equality. I don’t get how Romney’s contempt for other nations and cultures seems like a qualification for leadership, nor his frequently expressed choice of business as the best model for government and the resulting privatization of public good that will overturn even the modest progress that has been made in providing healthcare, education, and environmental protection.
In fact, I am frightened by the fact that I don’t get it, because I don’t see how it is possible to bridge this mutual incomprehension using the currency of the burnt-out wasteland that is our political culture. Millions of dollars in paid political advertising won’t do it. Lobbing slogans and lies won’t do it. The only possibility I see is to face each other as human beings and talk openly about what matters most until we get underneath the slogans. Dialogue like that cannot take place within our money-bound political system. As soon as the election is over—as soon as we’ve had a chance to think about the constructive uses to which we could have put the well over $2 billion spent just by the principal campaign vehicles—the dialogue on how to release the grip of money on politics deserves our full attention.
In the meantime, a friend sent me a link to a more sophisticated polling analysis from the Princeton Election Consortium which at this writing puts the probability of President Obama’s re-election by the Electoral College at over 90 percent. I can’t say contributing money this week will enhance the prospect of Romney’s defeat, but I can think of something: real-time conversations with fellow voters who might be tempted to support Romney. Even if you convince just one person to consider the damage a Romney presidency can do, that will make a difference.
Here are two things that might help lift your spirits. A friend who worked on the film sent me this link to Women’s Voices: The Gender Gap Movie, made by Kartemquin Films in 1984 to let women know there was a gender gap and to mobilize women to vote against Reagan in the 1984 election. The film interweaves testimony by women with satirical cartoons by the cartoonist Nicole Hollander, creator of the comic strip “Sylvia.” “Now,” the filmmakers say, “28 years later, the issues in this film are the same ones facing us today and the women in the film still inspire. Watch it and pass it on!!”
In 1963, singer Lesley Gore’s recording of “You Don’t Own Me” reached #2 on the pop charts, right behind the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Now, Gore provides a first-person introduction (and conclusion, so be sure to watch to the end) to a rendition of the song featuring a diverse group of women singing their hearts out to Romney and his cohort. Pass it on!