COUNTRY CLUB POLITICS
We live in a community constructed around the contours of a golf course. The topography is beautiful and it’s a nice place to live, regardless of one’s feelings about golf. Since I’ve quit the sport for life due to extreme frustration, we’re not “members” of the club. Still, we occasionally join members at the clubhouse for dinner. Most are impressive and accomplished people, enjoyable to be around. We discuss children, sports and the weather. We compare restaurants, travel and traffic. We do NOT discuss politics.
Recently, my wife, Katie and I were invited to dinner at the clubhouse with three other couples. When we arrived, however, three of the eight seats at our table were empty. We learned that two husbands and one wife were elsewhere in the building attending a fund-raiser for a Republican congressional candidate. The wife sitting to my right at the table, Amanda, told the rest of us she doesn’t agree with her husband’s politics, so she didn’t attend, but she expected them shortly. In accordance with the local etiquette, we stated we wouldn’t discuss the fund-raiser when the three attendees arrived.
To our surprise, however, when Tom, Mary and Amanda’s husband, Harry arrived, they burst with missionary zeal. Not only did they wish to discuss politics, they appeared to have been enlisted to do so, to bring enlightenment to the apathetic or, worse, progressive-leaning in their midst.
“No one could be happy with the way America is going,” declared Harry, the most excited of the trio, as he sat down to my left. “Don’t you think it’s time we got this country turned around? We’re under siege!”
I had a sinking feeling my loose tongue would not obey my cautious brain. “I don’t see the pitchforks,” I said, gesturing out the window to the sun-splashed golf course, just as a blue heron took flight over a lake in the foreground.
“You know what I mean,” said Harry. “The country is going down the tubes. We’re not where we want to be.”
I realized he was repeating parts of the presentation he’d just heard, but I couldn’t resist responding literally. “We’re sitting here at dinner in a lovely setting. All of us are retired or semi-retired, without financial worry. Isn’t this exactly where we want to be?”
Harry rolled his eyes. “You just don’t get it, do you?”
“No, I definitely do not,” I admitted.
For the past couple of years, while the national political scene has become increasingly polarized, I’ve tried without success to comprehend the Republican mindset. I miss the old days, about twenty years ago, when the difference in parties often hinged on nothing more than disagreement about spending and taxation policy. Now, there’s a disconnection with reality on the Republican side. For sure, the Democratic point of view is also full of inconsistencies. But I’m familiar with those from growing up in a Democratic household and attending a Quaker school. I don’t condone Democratic inconsistencies, but I do understand them.
For instance, my father, who died in 1994, was nearly a socialist in terms of economic sympathies. Yet, as a victim of numerous robberies and burglaries at his clothing store in Philadelphia, he rabidly supported a “tough-on-crime”, right-wing mayor. In addition, while he hated the Vietnam War as much as Abby Hoffman did, his personal sense of fastidiousness caused him outrage whenever he saw longhaired or even sloppily dressed men. In the 1960’s and 70’s, in particular, he was appalled on a regular basis. I didn’t always agree with his hard-to-reconcile positions, but I comprehended them. They sprung rationally from his experience or personality.
But modern-day Republicans? As Harry asserted, I don’t get it. I wonder about it. I shake my head about it. I can’t figure it out. In my prosperous suburban milieu, I can’t find a Republican who admits to supporting the stated positions of their chosen representatives. Lovely people to share dinner with, their preferred politicians seem so hard-hearted and willfully ignorant. How can that be? In Harry, Mary and Tom, I saw the opportunity to gain an understanding.
“Let me play the devil’s advocate,” I said, as innocently as possible.
“Sure, bring it on,” said Harry, spoiling for a debate.
Mary and Tom, sitting across from me, regarded me sympathetically, like a poor student in need of assistance.
I thought I’d tread carefully to begin, with something easy. “Do you believe a woman is equal to a man and should be paid the same?” I asked.
“Of course,” said Harry.
“Sure,” said Mary, as though my question were the most naïve she’d ever heard.
“Should a woman have control over her own medical decisions?” I asked.
“I know what you’re getting at,” Mary jumped in. “I know it’s not part of my religion, since I’m Catholic, but I completely believe a woman should be able to make her own decisions about abortion.”
“Wow, you get double points for that,” I said, smiling.
“We have daughters and grand-daughters,” said Tom. “Of course we think they’re entitled to equal pay and to make their own decisions.”
“What about gay people?” I asked. “Are they equal, too?”
“Of course,” said Mary. “Even if you don’t actively support gay marriage, why would you actively oppose it?”
“Good question,” I said. “I can’t figure that out either.”
I became aware the rest of the table had paused to listen. Katie, to my far right, made a facial expression I took to mean: “Are you sure you want to do this?” Intrigued, or reckless, I plunged further: “Do you think there should be reasonable background checks to prevent domestic abusers, mental patients and ex-felons from obtaining guns?”
“Absolutely,” said Harry.
“That’s just common sense,” added Tom.
“What about fracking?” I asked.
“I’m all for it,” said Tom.
“It’s for the economy,” said Harry. “And energy independence. Are you against it?” he asked me.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate in North Carolina,” I said.
“Why not?” asked Mary.
“Because we have a large population, a tourist economy, sandy soil conducive to leakage, and only a minimal amount of oil or gas,“ I said.
“Well, is it EVER acceptable in your view?” asked Harry, warming to posing the questions.
“It might be appropriate in North Dakota,” I said, “since there’s tons of oil there, almost no people, no tourists and the soil isn’t sandy and permeable. Still, even there, the chemicals should be disclosed.”
“Agreed,” said Tom. “You know, we Republicans do care about the environment. You can’t just roll back all the protections.”
“We breathe the air and drink the water, too, you know,” said Mary.
“See,” said Harry, beaming, gesturing warmly to the entire table. “We can have a serious, political conversation here. We can reach reasonable conclusions. We can respect each other.”
“Absolutely,” I said, wondering when they would veer off to major disagreement. “On to another subject.”
Harry’s wife, Amanda, patted my right arm. “You go get ‘em,” she said. “I have to go through this every day at home.” Everyone laughed.
I turned back to my three-person panel. “What about the concept of ‘clean coal’ and the alleged ‘war on coal’ that Republicans blame on Obama?”
“Haha,” said Tom. “No one’s stupid enough to think coal can ever be clean.”
“But why do Republican candidates claim it’s wonderful?” I asked. “So they get elected,” said Harry. “They have to say that stuff.”
“And the war on coal?” I asked.
“Same thing,” said Tom. “You gotta get the votes. The birthers and the crazies love that stuff.”
“Would you agree cheap natural gas has more to do with the plight of the coal industry than Obama?” I asked.
“Of course,” said Mary. “But we do have to protect the people in the coal states. Their economies are bad.”
“That’s right,” said Harry. “What are those poor people in Kentucky and West Virginia going to do without coal mining?”
“I suppose their economies have done fabulously in the past 150 years WITH coal-mining?” I said.
“Oh, there you go,” said Tom. “Getting a little sarcastic.”
“Well?” I asked. “What do you suggest those people do for a living?” said Harry.
“Perhaps,” I said, “instead of strip-mining the tops of their mountains, companies could develop wind turbines or solar panels and construct the necessary grid connections. Those projects would create thousands of jobs, without spills and without explosions. Did you know there are now more solar workers in America than coal workers?”
All three of them looked at me wordlessly. Finally, Tom asked: “Are you serious?”
I nodded, but before I could say: “You can look it up,” Mary began to explain her motivations for supporting the GOP. “There are two main things: securing our border and education.”
“And don’t forget welfare fraud,” said Harry.
“And the need for more military spending,” said Tom.
“Whoa, one at a time,” I said, smiling. “Let’s discuss the border.”
“We have to know who’s coming in,” said Harry. “Anyone could be pouring across the Mexican border. Democrats don’t take that seriously.”
“You do know Obama’s presided over more deportations than any other president?” I said.
“I’ve heard that,” said Tom. “But he sets the wrong tone, with the amnesty and all.”
“Terrorists are crossing over every day,” said Harry.
I had to ask: “How many of the 9-11 terrorists were from Mexico?”
“Oh, you’re good,” said Harry, admiringly. “Very good. But if we had a wall at the border, we’d worry a lot less about bombers.”
“You mean like the Tim McVeigh?” I asked. “I doubt he chose tacos as his final meal.”
“Very funny,” said Tom. “We have to know who’s in the country. We have to fingerprint them.”
“I guess that would be helpful,” I said. “But the FBI knew about the Boston Marathon guys. They ‘checked them out.’ It didn’t prevent the bombing.”
“Security will never be perfect,” said Harry. “I still think the first step is to secure the border.”
“And who’s going to build the wall?” I asked. “When it’s finished, will the laborers be asked to finish painting on the Mexican side and stay there? Who will pick our fruit? Who will mow our lawns? Who will clean our houses?”
“Those are problems,” said Mary. “Would you deport all those people?” I asked.
“Of course not,” said Tom. “We need some way to legalize them.”
“Did the candidate say that in his presentation?” I asked.
“He can’t SAY that,” said Harry. “Everyone understands that.” He gestured to the rest of the dining room, filled with cheerful, prosperous diners.
“After all,” said Mary. “We’re a nation of immigrants.”
My hamburger had grown cold. My sweet potato fries had long ago been stolen by my table-mates. I took a deep breath and plunged in again.
“What’s the Republican solution to education? I read that forty-six states approved of the Common Core standards. And now most Republican-led states are balking. I don’t begin to understand the specific issues, but why did they agree, and now they don’t agree?”
“It has something to do with testing and parent choice,” said Mary.
“Okay. What about them?” I asked.
“I’m not really sure, either,” said Harry. “But we have to put teachers in a position to do a better job. They need to be respected like professionals.”
“You sound like a Democrat,” I said. “Would you support raising their pay?”
“Not with raising taxes,” said Mary. “Nothing can be solved with taxes. As the candidate said, we need to cut waste and fraud.”
“Ah, that’s a good phrase,” I said. “Sounds like the candidate has studied the Fox television talking points.”
“Don’t make fun of Fox,” said Harry. “MSNBC is just as bad. There’s a lot of waste and fraud in government.”
“Especially welfare fraud,” said Mary.
“And food stamp fraud,” added Tom.
“I don’t condone welfare fraud,” I said.
“And it costs money we could otherwise spend on our military,” said Mary.
“Is that why the GOP proposes to raise military spending while lowering social spending?” I asked.
“That’s right,” said Harry. “We need a strong defense and there’s plenty of money available on the social side.”
“I agree we need an effective military,” I said. “But I suspect fraud and waste in military spending far exceeds welfare fraud in real dollars.”
“Aha, an MSNBC talking point, no doubt,” said Tom.
“Actually,” I said, “no less a hawk than John McCain pointed out that there are billions, with a B, dollars of waste and overruns in our weapons programs. Welfare fraud is measured in thousands and millions.”
“So you think Boeing and Halliburton executives are worse than welfare queens?” said Harry.
“They can be,” I said. “It’s just that when those executives are crooked, we aren’t as interested because they look like us and we’d enjoy dinner or golf with them.”
“That’s very cynical,” said Tom.
“Still true,” I said.
“How do they get away with that?” asked Mary. “Why don’t we hear about that?”
“Could it be because defense contractors make huge political contributions? I don’t think the same could be said of welfare recipients,” I said.
The table quieted for a moment as we concentrated on the dessert menu. The rest of the table had tired of our debate and resumed chatting with each other. I wondered if I’d ever be invited to the club again. Still, I figured I’d gone so far already, I might as well finish the conversation.
“So tell me,” I began, addressing Harry, Mary and Tom. “Your positions deviate from the stated Republican positions on guns, gays, women, fracking and a path towards legal status for undocumented immigrants. Once you verify that military spending is at least as wasteful as welfare spending, you’ll look at that differently, too. None of you profess to be against environmental regulations. How do you support candidates who don’t express any of your relatively progressive positions?”
“Like I said before,” said Tom. “They have to get elected.”
“So what voters are they talking to?” I asked.
“Those people out there,” said Harry, gesturing to the windows. “The people out west, and in the deep south. The ones who like Palin and Cruz, the nut-jobs.”
“So you feel the Republican candidates don’t actually believe what they’re saying,” I said. “They’re just speaking buzzwords to get the votes of the low-information, low-education voters and then, basically, winking at the high-end Republicans like you?”
“Bingo!” said Tom. “That’s what they have to do.”
“So you have no problem with the disconnect between the stated positions of the candidates you support and what you believe to be their real beliefs?” I asked. All three nodded. I found myself where I began. I STILL don’t get it. If there are not rational, real-life explanations for why these intelligent, kind people vote the way they do, are there irrational explanations? What factors might come into play? I hesitate to ponder too deeply lest I dislike my own conclusions. Readers are welcome to weigh in.