Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Widest Cleavage

For a long time I felt puzzled, trying to figure out the main basis on which people are taking sides in the current US . Now I know.

The most obvious is based on race. Some people will never, ever vote for a black person. I don’t think it’s possible to guess with much accuracy how widespread this kind of is, but it will surely affect the final tally to some degree. I ran into two men on a cruise ship this spring whose racism horrified me. (In one case, I got up from the table and moved away, since I would not sit with someone as insulting as that hateful man.) Polls in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio during the primary race showed that about 15 or 20 percent of the said that race is a factor in their voting decision.

According to ’s article in the September 15 issue of The New York Review of Books, the courts have been making some decisions that in effect will make it harder for blacks to vote. In Indiana, for example, all those registering to vote must now produce a government document showing their photograph. Most people fulfill this requirement by showing their drivers licence, but blacks disproportionately lack such a licence. They can go to a special office and obtain a state ID card, but that usually involves a lengthy trip. This requirement will inevitably reduce the number of black voters in Indiana.

The Help America Vote Act was designed to increase, rather than decrease, the opportunities to vote. However, it requires states to keep their voter lists up to date by eliminating the names of people who die or move away. This is sometimes done by mailing a letter to everyone on the roll, then deleting the names of all those whose letters were returned in the post. Since tend to move more than whites, they are also more likely to have their registrations removed by this procedure.

Finally, there are laws in some states that disenfranchise felons for life. Since blacks are more likely to spend time in prison, they are also more likely than whites to lose their right to vote in that way.

On the other hand, this year huge numbers of citizens — especially Democrats — are registering to vote. The Republican registrations are flat. I believe that ’s supporters will be remarkably effective in getting those people to the polls on voting day, possibly thereby offsetting the racist effects of the aforementioned legal decision.

Anyway, the impact of race on this election is going to be different from all previous periods, for — as Obama has pointed out himself — there are two different cultures within the black community, and the one favoring Obama is the younger generation. That distinction became very clear when unknowingly whispered into a live radio mike that he (and many other older blacks) would like to castrate Obama.

It is young, educated blacks, not those who came through the civil rights movement, who are keen to support Obama. And culturally they resemble educated white Americans. Racism is not necessarily the top issue on their political agenda, nor is it paramount among young, well-educated whites. Because Obama is so extraordinarily sophisticated, he is not running as a black man, but simply as an American. And many other blacks respond to him as such — including , who said on TV yesterday that he has still not made up his mind how he will vote, but his decision will not be based on race.

So racism is not the main cleavage in the electorate.

Yet there is a cleavage – a deep, wide one. That became apparent when McCain named as his running mate. The tensions between those who support her and those who do not is more intense than between Obama's and McCain's supporters – or even between Obama's and Hillary's supporters. What is that tension all about?

Some say that it’s based on the hostility between cultures. There’s something to that idea, I suppose — at least when it comes to gun control. I have been told that hunting is important to rural people in ways that I cannot understand. This habit of Palin’s is meaningful to those of rural background. To be sure, she talks about small towns as if they are poles apart from cities. I wouldn’t know.

But I can’t believe that this election is a fight between rural and urban Americans. That is even less the main issue than is race. Instead, it's about "elitism"

I got a clue from ’s article in the Guardian (Sept. 8 issue) about . Yes, that’s it! Obama’s too much like Adlai, the Democratic candidate who was defeated twice by Eisenhower. The voters could not forgive him for not knowing the name of a popular comic strip character, as I recall. They called him an “” — meaning an “elitist.” Temko wrote:

“One thing, above all, sealed Stevenson's sorry electoral fate. It was the image that he was somehow too smart, too eloquent, out of touch with "ordinary" Americans. In different contests at different times ever since, that same rap has helped defeat a train of other Democratic candidates: Eugene McCarthy's anti-war crusade in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, and most recently John Kerry last time around.

“America has changed profoundly since Stevenson's day (even in crashing down to defeat, he carried the then "solidly Democratic", and solidly segregationist, south). But many of those changes – the electoral divide between a now solidly Democratic eastern seaboard and much of the rest of the country, and the rise of evangelical politics and the profound culture clash between Democrat and Republican – has made what a leading newspaper columnist called the "Adlai egghead" problem more, not less, of a challenge for Barack Obama.”

Certainly, that’s the main cleavage in America today: between educated and uneducated Americans. More people will vote against Obama because he is “” than because he’s black.

I have trouble understanding that point of view. Why would a voter want a president who is like himself or herself? I want a president who is smarter than I am. Fortunately, Obama is. He’s vastly smarter than I am. McCain is not. Definitely Sarah Palin is not. I’m not even sure that Joe Biden is, but at least he’s not dumber than I am, so he will do.

But why would ignorant people want their leader to be ignorant too?

I am a democrat — lower-case as well as upper-case — not because I think democracies make better decisions than autocracies, but just because democracy is a superior way of living together in a group. It’s a system that gives human beings the space to fulfill their excellence. It honors , human dignity.

But my new insight discourages me. If people do not want to fulfill their excellence, if they don’t admire intelligence and ethical insights in a democracy, then what is democracy good for? If people want Sarah Palin because she’s just like them, and they don’t want Barack Obama because he’s better than they are, what hope is there for democracy? And what justification is there for upholding it?

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