When a person votes for George Bush or another Republican, it is generally presumed that he or she is expressing support for the candidate’s policy prescriptions. This is why those who do not share the same views rightly hold those voters and the person they helped to elect responsible for the measures enacted during his or her term in office.
This is what many Democrats did quite forcefully and vociferously in the years between 2000 and 2008. And to their credit, most Republican activists made honest efforts (however vain they might be in the long run) to defend their man and his record.
But when a Democrat gets elected to office, it seems that this calculus suddenly changes.
Obama has, among many other things, greatly expanded the horrific terror that is drone warfare, increased state secrecy and citizen surveillance, dramatically increased deportations of illegal immigrants, expanded defense budgets, undermined all serious efforts on to curb climate change, largely preserved the ill-gotten gains of financial elites, put entitlement programs on the table for chopping and has turned torture, unlimited detention and extra-judicial killing of US citizens into permanent and legally unassailable elements of American life.
However, when I confront people whom I know voted for Obama and his party with this desultory and undeniably accurate bill of particulars, they act as if it had little or nothing to do with them and their vote. Indeed, in my experience, they not only do not take responsibility for enabling these behaviors, but will often go to the next step of portraying those of us that point out these obvious realities as liars and fabulists.
What is going on here?
The key to understanding this lies, it seems, in the role high self-regard plays in the life of many liberals. There are, of course many, many humble and sincere advocates for justice and human dignity among those that regularly vote for the Democratic Party. But along side of them, there are many, many others for whom voting for the dark-skinned and silken-tongued Obama is primarily a way of achieving or cementing what the great French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “social distinction”.
In other words, in identifying with Obama and a Democratic party elite that is generally much more cosmopolitan and socially refined than their Republican counterparts, these voters seek to acquire–and here again I recur to Bourdieu—“cultural capital” that they are sure will identify them as sophisticated “players” within our rapidly crumbling, winner-take-all social structure.
For such people, the actually policies implemented by Obama and the Democrats are a decidedly secondary concern. And that is if they are a concern at all.
Indeed, it appears that the President’s team is not only well aware of this dynamic, but has predicated much of its governing strategy upon its continued growth and expansion. When, in early 2010, progressive critics were assailing Obama’s slavishly corporatist approach to health care reform, Rahm Emanuel, referring to the president’s base, said: “They like the president, and that’s all that counts”.
Translated: “We know from polling that most of our voters could care less about policy outcomes. They are–for their reasons having largely to do with their own need to view themselves as socially better than those crude little Republicans–deeply enamored of the idea of an Obama presidency, and as such, will put up with almost anything we do.”
Viewed from a slightly different angle, this phenomenon goes a long way to explaining the Republican’s extraordinary success in turning middle and lower class voters against the Democrats. All they need to do is hold up a mirror to the rank insincerity and moral indifference of this large and growing sector of the party–think Susan Rice, Samantha Powers, Cass Sunstein and Julius Genachowski– and show just how much of what they do is driven not by a desire to bring peace and dignity to the lives of ordinary people, but rather to burnish their own images as intellectually and morally superior beings.
Yes, for a lot of liberals, the ethos of junior high still looms large. Confident of their exalted status with the in-crowd, they feel little or no need to explain, or even rationalize, the actions they support with their votes. No, explaining is strictly reserved for nerds and their grown-up counterparts who, from their vantage point, are stupid enough to inhabit the right side of the political spectrum.
Thomas S. Harrington teaches in the Department of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College.