Blaming The Voters

Voters? Shouldn’t that be ‘blaming the victim’? That’s the traditional formulation, yes. But I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend since before this election among entrenched Democratic types and their hardcore supporters: blaming the voters.

Not all of the voters, of course, just those voters who the Democrats perceive to be responsible for their losses. Before the election, the most-visible and persistent manifestation of that was the one crystallized by Robert Gibbs in his rant against the “professional left.” Everyone from Rahm Emanuel to President Obama to VP Biden weighed in on the perfidy of the Democratic base, with such remarkable consistency between their views that it had to either have been literally the subject of a conscious political strategy, focus-grouped and voted on in a White House strategy session, or the result of so many frustrated behind-the-scenes water-cooler conversations that everyone already knew what each other thought – and they all thought virtually the same things. Since Tuesday’s election, I’ve been noticing other manifestations of it, though. Most recently, this morning on Twitter, I saw a Tweet which said that someone on CNN had just “said 1/3 of LGBT voters voted republican,” and concluded: “Shame shame shame if that is true.”

Really? Shame? On VOTERS?

From where I sit, this is a big problem for elected Democrats and the Democratic party writ large. And it’s a problem that’s among the most dangerous ones facing Democrats (from a political standpoint, not a policy one), because not only haven’t they come up with a strategy for dealing with it, they’re currently either engaged in furiously and assiduously pretending it’s not there…or they really don’t even notice it. I’m not sure which would be worse. But either way, it’s a potentially lethal problem for the Democrats continued political viability, if they continue to not recognize and address in a serious way the dissatisfaction of some of their base. If I’m an elected official, and I notice that big chunks of the electorate who voted for my team last time aren’t voting for us this time, shouldn’t my first reaction – just from a self-preservation standpoint, if nothing else – be to find out why, instead of publicly chastising those voters for voting the “wrong way” this time?

Let me conduct a little experiment here, to show you what I mean. To give credit where it’s due, I think I understand some of the reasoning behind the tweet that left me so gobsmacked: namely, the general observation that Democrats have been far more supportive of LGBT rights than Republicans. It seems clear the author of that tweet believes that; I’ll go out on a limb here somewhat and say I do too, in the abstract. From there, though, it seems as if the next step the author of that tweet took was to conclude that because she believes Democrats have historically been better on LGBT issues than Republicans, then any member of the LGBT community who voted Republican on Tuesday was voting against their own interest, and thus, should be ashamed (in fact, I have confirmed privately that this is exactly the case). Still with me? OK, here’s the experiment: since I agree with the tweeter that Dems – on balance – are much more supportive of the LGBT community than Republicans, if I see reliable data which suggests that my preconceived notion (that such a view is widely shared in the LGBT community and results – or should result – in most LGBT folks favoring Democrats) was largely incorrect, well….what do you think my reaction to such knowledge SHOULD be? Should such a sharp divergence between my expectations and reality make me:

  1. examine the facts much more closely, to see why my expectations were wrong in this case, and what, if any, larger implications that might have (especially if I’m an elected official and I understand that keeping my job depends upon getting as many votes as I can)? Or should I
  2. immediately and defensively declare that all LGBT voters whom I expected to vote Democratic, but who actually voted the other way, should be ashamed because my way was the way they ought to have voted?

Ordinarily, I’d have said such a question hardly merited asking, because the best answer seems quite obviously to be the first one. But I’ve witnessed enough examples of partisan Democrats – all the way up the pecking order to the very top – choosing the second option – blaming the voters – to see that clearly, this question does need to be asked. And, for my own sake, if nothing else, the answers from those who’ve been choosing the latter response need to be better understood.

Here’s a little follow-up thought experiment which follows from the above. For a moment, just try to imagine the chutzpah (or perhaps thoughtlessness) it would take for you to walk up to a member of a traditionally-oppressed minority group (whether ethnic, gender-issue or religious), and flat out TELL that person that based on THEIR OWN identity – which you don’t share and don’t understand from personal experience – they voted incorrectly. No matter how strongly you may believe it, imagine actually telling an African American voter who voted GOP that they should feel shame for their vote (with all the implicit connotations of “you were wrong and stupid” that go along with it). Could you do it? Would you? Imagine approaching a Jewish American voter and telling them they should feel shame for having voted for the GOP because Democrats are more supportive of religious tolerance and freedom of religion. Can you picture yourself saying that?

I can’t. But, based on my recent observations, if you answered that you could imagine doing so, chances are you’re probably a hardcore Obama supporter. Because these days, those are the only people I see on the left side of the aisle who are shaming – literally, shaming – voters for their votes based upon the shamer’s views of how voters with this or that identity should vote. It is arrogant, because it carries with it a tone of “logic dictates you OWE us your vote.” It is insulting, because it very clearly implies that anyone who disagrees is either irrational or clueless. It is insulting in a completely different way, because it flat-out states that the person doing the attempted shaming knows better than the actual member of an oppressed minority how the experience of being a member of that minority group ought to make one vote. And it is dismissive and patronizing, because it denies that there might ever be any other factors in a given person’s vote for (or against) a particular candidate beyond their membership in that one minority group. Nobody is only gay, or only female, or black, or Jewish. Virtually everyone is several things at once, and sometimes certain pieces of one’s identity – or one’s thoughts – add up to weigh more heavily on one’s vote than other pieces. But telling anyone who is LGBT (or black, Jewish, etc.) that they should be ashamed of their vote because that part of their identity suggests they should vote Democratic simply elides any of that nuance from existence. It demeans people by treating them as cardboard cut-outs.

Perhaps the Democratic partisans who are blaming voters they assume should be on their side – or should be more vocally, strongly supportive of them – don’t understand how such language will likely be perceived by those they’re addressing. Then again, maybe they do understand that risk, but feel SO strongly that they’re correct about it being idiotic and shameful for LGBTs to vote GOP that they’re willing to risk appearing arrogant, dismissive, insulting, patronizing, and clueless because they just REALLY believe their view is correct. I can’t say, because frankly, I can’t imagine myself making such a statement. But imagine you’re an LGBT voter who just voted for the Republican in one of the races on your ballot, and you hear an elected Democrat, or a party official, or even just a hardcore committed Democrat attempting to publicly shame you for your own vote. Tell me: is that likely to make you more or less willing to believe the Democratic party understands – or gives a damn – about your vote, your life, and the issues that matter to you as a person, not just a member of the LGBT community?

More importantly (for the Democratic party, anyway), will it make you more or less likely to consider giving your vote (not to mention your money and/or volunteer time) to Democrats in the future?

Your mileage may vary, I suppose. And of course I’m now doing some speculating and making some assumptions of my own here, but I’d be willing to bet – human nature being what it is – that “less likely” is going to be the runaway winner of that contest. And that’s why I say this problem – the growing tendency for Democrats to blame the very voters they assume should by nature be on their side for not being enthusiastic enough or for voting “incorrectly” – is a potentially deadly problem for the Democratic party. Until the Democratic party starts choosing option one in my first little quiz above: doing some internal inventory, some soul searching, some honest questioning of their own assumptions as well as listening closely to what these presumptive supporters they’ve been attacking and whining about are trying to tell them – instead of dismissing it and telling such people to “buck up” and vote Dem anyway because to do otherwise is stupid and shameful – Democratic woes will only worsen.

Speaking just for myself, I’ve had the questionable good fortune to never have been a member of any traditionally-oppressed minority; I’m white, male, heterosexual, married, and grew up in a Christian household. Some of those things might be minority positions elsewhere in the world, but here in America, that makes me almost laughably the very stereotype of what Republicans mean when they dog-whistle about “real America(ns).” But I did have the experience, earlier this summer and fall, of being in that group of voters whom Robert Gibbs famously derided as “the professional left.” I am a progressive who’s been profoundly disappointed with some of the choices the Obama administration has made in the last two years. So I was not “fired up, ready to go” on Tuesday. I was neither enthused nor hopeful about the future. I voted, tepidly, for exactly the reasons many high-profile Democrats suggested I ought to vote: not because they’d done great things and deserved to continue, not because they intended to lead us forward into a much brighter future, but merely to try to ensure that things would not get dramatically worse if the GOP returned to power. That was quite literally almost the entirety of the Democrats’ political pitch this fall.

As a political sales-pitch, how galvanizing do you suppose such a message is for the average voter – especially in comparison to the lofty, inspirational rhetoric of 2008? While such a rationale may have been barely enough to motivate me and some of the people like me – or like LGBT voters who’ve been waiting in vain for two years now for DADT to be repealed or the enforcement of it discontinued, and for DOMA to be overturned – to get out and pull the lever for Democrats, take a moment to think about the fact that this – an appeal to fear of change for the worse – was literally the Democrats’ idea of their best pitch to the electorate this fall.

Compare that to 2008. In 2008, like a lot of other people, I was “fired up, ready to go,” primarily because the Democrats – and specifically Barack Obama – campaigned first and foremost on a soaring message of hope for positive change from the dark days of the Bush administration and the GOP Abramoff corruption scandals and the Abu Ghraib torture photos and so many other shameful abominations we endured under GOP rule. Evoking and encouraging that kind of hope, promising that kind of transformational change (especially after such recent awfulness) is trafficking in one of the most powerful human motivating forces ever known: the desire to make a bad – even seemingly hopeless – situation better. To lift up, to bring justice and fairness. There’s no question that messaging is why you guys won; why 2008 was a second consecutive Democratic “wave” year, giving you the trifecta of control over the executive branch and historic majorities in both houses of the legislative branch. Unfortunately (for you guys), the problem with painting yourselves as being leaders who’ll be not just competent executives but transformational figures is that it’s a two-edged sword: once you pick it up, you can’t just set it down again…and that blade can cut both ways. Everyone’s been burned before, especially when it comes to politicians. The words “politician” and “disappointment” are practically synonymous. But when people vote the lesser of two evils, they almost expect to be disappointed – to not get to see what they support enacted by the people they voted for. But when people vote FOR someone instead of just AGAINST someone else, then if disappointment comes, it will be much worse than if they’d never been led to hope for much.

And that’s the current situation in a nutshell: the Democrats’ main message in 2008 was about the audacity of hope for transformational change, and now the 2010 message was about fear of change for the worse. Is it really any wonder why voters on Tuesday were generally unenthused at best and outright angry at worst? Or that some of your supporters for whom “change” wasn’t just an airy-fairy social justice concept but something they longed for – needed – in their own lives in a very real way, and who’ve been disappointed by things Democrats either did or failed to do in the last two years, are now expressing disappointment and frustration toward Democrats? Is your best response to that reality now truly going to be, essentially: “I hear you…but put a sock in it, because first: I never actually promised you any of this stuff, and second, if you keep it up, you’re going to be the reason – not us – that the bad guys return?”

Which begs the question: bad guys? What are you talking about? What bad guys? NOW, you talk to us about bad guys, about putting the car in R to go backwards, after steadfastly – almost pathologically – refusing for the last two years (until very recently) to identify any bad guys whatsoever as the reason change has been so hard, or the reason why you couldn’t accomplish certain things, or had to abandon other things? Even when you’ve been pressed by the media to take shots at Wall Street or the GOP or any other groups for that matter, even when the available evidence and voters’ own eyes told them who the villains in a particular scene were, you’ve maintained an increasingly-incomprehensible unflappability and unwillingness to give your supporters – and just voters in general – any sense that in fighting for those things you campaigned on, you’re having to fight against some very specific people and groups. Why? Because you’re worried FOX will attack you – like why you fired Shirley Sherrod so quickly, because of the fear it would be on Glenn Beck and you might lose “centrist” votes?

Sadly, the result of steadfastly refusing to call out the obstructionists until very late in the game – and even then, mostly very tepidly – is that people got the mistaken impression there aren’t any bad guys. And if there aren’t any bad guys, if nobody’s really to blame for the terrible state of things in our country, then either you’re simply failing to get done what you campaigned on doing, or you weren’t being honest with us when you said you wanted it, too. If this isn’t a fight against entrenched interests opposed to the change you advocated for and urged us to join you in fighting for, then this isn’t truly a movement for change, it’s merely a faculty meeting to rearrange the resources and the schedule so it works better. If we’re not fighting against anything, or to overcome anything, then we’re simply doing clerical work to increase efficiency and output. Or, rather, YOU are doing such administrative work — we, the voters, aren’t doing much at all.

And THAT’S enervating for voters who took you seriously when you talked of hope, too.

The truth is, the Obama team and the Democrats aren’t wrong at all when they do point out that a lot of the inability to achieve certain goals is a function of dedicated obstructionism from a cynically entrenched opposition party and/or of the byzantine and counterproductive forces built into the system itself as it stands today. Nor are they wrong when they point out that since 2008, they’ve had some significant successes. But many of their victories over the past two years have happened almost behind the scenes, and there has been virtually no coordinated effort made to publicly take credit for those victories and accomplishments. If voters knew better specifically what — and whom — Democrats had to overcome to accomplish certain things, they would today be both far more willing to forgive the things Democrats didn’t manage to accomplish, and far more appreciative of their efforts and sympathetic to the fights they’d been waging. Isn’t that what Obama & Gibbs & Democrats complain they want: voters who appreciate all their accomplishments and how difficult they were to achieve, and who remain “fired up” as a result? So why is it that until very recently, Democrats simply haven’t made those points very often – and they’ve virtually never done so in the context of a base-rousing, hope-inspiring, opposition-demonizing campaign-trail-style speech that implores their supporters to keep pushing, keep fighting — because that’s what they (Democrats) are doing: fighting?

I confess, I’ve found that impossible to understand. But I hope the lesson of Tuesday night is – at least in part – that blaming various parts of one’s own base voters for not voting “correctly” is only going to drive more of those voters away. And I hope another lesson of Tuesday’s election for Democrats is the realization that the impulse to remain above the fray, refusing to be so declassé as to actually visibly engage in fighting, is horribly misguided and that it led, in large measure, to the impasse at which we’ve currently arrived. Because I’m starting to wonder about how accurately Obama and the Democratic leadership are perceiving reality itself, if they cannot see that whether they agree or not with peoples reasons for lack of enthusiasm about voting Dem, insulting and blaming those voters – or trying to force them to do what Dems want – instead of trying to figure out why those voters are upset, will only have the effect of driving some significant portion of those voters away, shrinking the very support Democrats themselves claim is so desperately needed.

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