Monday, August 20, 2012

Us and Them

Republican Representative Todd Akin is currently suffering from a potentially terminal case of foot-in-mouth disease, brought on by the following comment:

If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.
Of course, the simple inaccuracy of that statement has something to do with it. And the idea that he was saying that there's such a thing as a "legitimate rape" (which strikes me as a singular oxymoron) also likely fed the flames. And let's not leave out the fact that in this case "legitimate" could also mean "actual" - if anyone read Akin's statement as being: "if you became pregnant, maybe it wasn't really rape," I'm pretty sure he moved to the top of their hit list.

But the real reason that this thing blew up like a powder keg is that Akin, intentionally or not, said: "If elected, I'm going to work to encode my personal understanding of morality into law, using something that I think is true specifically because it supports me in that." The first part of that, I think, people already understood. It was the second part that made people uncomfortable, afraid and angry.

Part of it is that the Republican Party is doing what it can to appeal to social conservatives, who, either because they continue to hope out hope, or simply have no other good options, keep turning to any Republican who promises to replace large sections of the United States Code with Conservative Christian dogma. And one thing that the socially conservative agenda is VERY good at is conjuring up nightmare scenarios for anyone who isn't a social conservative themselves - and for social liberals it deeply resembles a fate worse than death. While many Fiscal and pro-Business Conservatives have a certain Libertarian mindset, most Social Conservatives come across as controlling to the point of being authoritarian. And Akin's statement, regardless of what he actually meant by it, came across is playing right into that in the minds of many people. The imagined Conservative regime, with it's Americanized version of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices, operates much like a police state from a bad 1970's glam-rock movie - complete with a jackbooted Gestapo singularly interested in stamping out Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll, along with anything else that wasn't acceptable to a typical 1950's churchgoer. Ned Flanders as Big Brother, indeed.

Of course, when one describes it as I just have, it's obviously a caricature. But it rarely feels that way in the moment. And that, I suspect is what is driving the increasing polarization of the nation. Each side has constructed an elaborately dangerous boogeyman around what they know of the other, and as fear is one of the few things that's really motivating to a mostly apathetic public, they portray it as lurking around every corner. Akin's misspeaking simply reinforced that.

And that's bad. It gets in the way of a dialog that sorely needs to happen. While people on all sides of the political divide often speak of solving the same problems, every passing day seems to reinforce the idea that one's political opposition is the primary problem that needs to be done away with. And as people people peddle rage, anxiety, ignorance and distrust in order to motivate their base of voters, they increase the discomfort, fear and anger of the other side. Tribalism and factionalism are rarely good things. History has shown us that. If we continue to push ourselves in that direction, we're asking for trouble.


John McGuinness said...

Adding to this is that Akin's opponent, Claire McCaskill and her PAC bought ads against Akin's primary opponents, nudging it toward Akin being her opponent, likely anticipating this type of "campaign."

I'm not trying to change the subject to "Democrats' dirty tricks;" I'm sure the GOP would do something similar given a chance. Just that the incentives in place drive things to this type of campaign

Aaron said...

I think that you're exactly right about that. There's definitely an incentive to try and set up matchups were the other party's candidate is going to say or do something that reflects badly not only on the individual, but the party as a whole. Fear, uncertainty and doubt are much more effective when the other side creates it for you.