At some point in the last couple years it dawned on me that one does not mention the Republican Party in polite conversation. At least, the people whose conversation I admired, whose political sensibilities I most wanted to emulate, they don’t talk about Republicans. This would seem an awkward impediment to an open flow of ideas, but in fact nuanced discussions of policy are entirely possible without anyone ever directly invoking the GOP. Instead, you simply refer to any of the double helix of primarily corporate interests that represent the elephant’s genes–ALEC, Scalia, Monsanto, the NRA, “Big Fill-In-The-Blank” (Data, Oil, Pharma, etc.), Koch Industries…you get the idea. From what I have observed, those who engage in this campaign of deliberate omission fall into two camps.
Let’s call the first camp the Guarded. Among the Guarded, the word is hidden for any number of reasons. Mostly they seek not to offend (i.e., you find yourself addressing a small audience on the subject of climate change: to highlight a history of congressional obstructionism without inciting wrath, you use the term “deniers” instead of the more accurate “Republicans”). Maybe the Guarded are unclear as to the disposition of the debate, and so refrain from pointed nouns. Maybe the Guarded don’t want to be reverse ID’d as Democrats. Maybe the instinct is a cousin to the puerile notion that keeps candidates from identifying their opponents by name.
But I’ve been in rooms packed exclusively with spirited Democratic activists and seen speakers, at precisely the moment when naming the foe would be most gratifying, suddenly become Guarded. It’s like if a prosecutor, at the height of her opening peroration, rather than pointing her finger at the accused and intoning his name, were to just kind of shrug and mumble, “And that fellow is in this courtroom, next to his lawyer…”
Obviously, this tendency owes much to our training in etiquette. In most circles, talking politics is worse than boring, worse than profitless: it’s rude. When I reflect on my past of Verbally Opinionating, I could just as well be reviewing the history of a turbulent sexuality: I first Opinioned myself at age 12; at 14 I first said an Opinion to another… After my Opinions were assaulted, here, I became confused and experimented with heterodox Opinions for a few months… I remember during this time I was plagued by a recurring dream of walking into school wearing all my Opinions… Finally, I came out as an Opinionated Liberal Partisan.
I’ve had plenty of conversations about delicate issues with people I didn’t know all that well that were much more comfortable than even the most basic, tip-of-the-iceberg political talk with people I’d never see again. A contractor once sat at my kitchen table and asked me, in an oblique way, who I was going to vote for in 2012. I got around to Obama, but it was hard sledding editing the volcano of my beliefs on the issue down to an unmolten nugget. I stammered and flopped. My jaw got tight and my face hot. I’d have better handled a direct question about how I took my pornography.
One of the reasons we admire a candidate for office is that they boldly and unequivocally enumerate points in support of their ideology. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time doing that, so it’s convenient when someone else does. We hear them and go, Yeah, that’s why I support a woman’s right to choose, too! Or, I knew there was a reason I hate the minimum wage!
Last year, I entered the fray directly as a Field Coordinator for the Kay Hagan campaign. Kay was vying for re-election to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina. It was an appalling job and I didn’t last long in it, but the experience was singular. (I am thinking about, if a lobster could leap out of the pot…that’s what my experience was like.) Among the most eye-opening aspects of the job was the depth of ignorance out there concerning, uhhhh, everything. Because I had to practice my pitch on the phone five hours a day, six days a week, I got to where I could fairly fluidly deliver a pithy little sequence of infotastic tautologies at the drop of a hat. I blended the campaign-approved, intellectually vacant boilerplate with my own homespun witticisms and earthy common sense (i.e. “bullshit”). Hearing me, elderly volunteers seemed generally impressed. “He’s got the gift,” they’d say. “Watch out for this one.” And the truth is, in terms of the art of political persuasion, I sucked.
Imagine your average white Hoosier teen with a decent jump shot introducing basketball to the people of some remote, unconnected land. They think he’s invincible. They take him on in one-on-one match-ups and laugh at the futility. They’ve never heard of Lebron James.
That about summarizes my experience in the campaign. I don’t want to be rude (not gratuitously rude, anyway), but my point is, even though the people who look like they know what they’re talking about don’t actually know that much, they still know a shitload more than most everybody else.
Scratch a partisan and you find someone who has uploaded certain tenets of their party’s platform into their gestalt. Scratch the gestalt and you find nebulae of emotion in orbit around a wobbly lodestar called Justice. “We engage in political activity so that we may, as societies of men, deal with the world as it is,” wrote English critic Henry Fairlie in a 1973 issue of Harpers: “This is not a slight endeavor; the world as it is, experience teaches us, is not easy to deal with.” I would put it to you that, in today’s culture, we engage in political activity mostly to compete over the privilege of defining what the condition of the world is. It’s a difficult, postmodern business, thorny with footnotes and clashing source materials; the swarm of worker bees flooding your neighborhood every two years to bring democracy to your doorstep work at several removes from their masters and are drilled to language their way through critical thought and to spend no more than five minutes on anyone. The vast majority of prospective voters, for the sake of whose allegiance billions of dollars are converted to bad television, have only the dimmest understanding of the American way of government. And all this frothing to-do results in paltry electorates dispatching to Washington ambassadors soon to be almost universally despised. Meanwhile, largely irrespective of which team controls the clock, the billionaires, as the marvelous essayist Tim Kreider puts it, “help themselves to the rest of the money.”
Which brings me to the second camp of people who don’t talk about Republicans: the Over It.
I first became kind of retroactively aware of the Over It while reading A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. Goon Squad didn’t make much of an impression on me (I didn’t finish it) except for the story of Stephanie, who meanders from a West Coast punk scene in the 1970s to a married suburban New York life in the 90s–a life that sees her regularly at tennis with a neighborhood woman who is, dun dun DUN…: A Republican. One of Stephanie’s old confidants is stunned by this development. You’re friends with a Republican? I mean seriously, a REPUBLICAN?? Stephanie’s botoxed, bleached, white-skirt-clad, generally-augmented tennis buddy becomes a symbol of the collapse of her ideals. Reading this passage, it seemed probable that the denouncer had suppressed the word “Republican” for decades, in the same way a member of the nobility might for so long effortfully elide from his mind and speech all references to those wallowing in the muck that when one of the poor bastards shows up and drips in the vestibule the words are an outrage in him, an incantation, poisonous.
It’s hard to write about this without being really offensive.
I’m imagining a hypothetical schoolhouse dynamic…one in which the administrators have ceded control to the students for an object lesson in civics. For one day the kids have to deliver their own lectures, proctor and grade their own quizzes, preside over an orderly lunch, distribute appropriate homework, and so on. In my conception, the student body would divide into three factions: A select group of leaders would rise of their own volition; as would a class of kids uninterested in leadership but willing to modify their behavior for the sake of achieving common goals; then finally you’d have a bunch of clowns who just want to goof off and throw rocks.
In this analogy, the Republicans are the ones who want to goof off and throw rocks.
By the end of the day, a number of representatives from the first two groups would have decided to simply ignore the existence of the third. They’d be over it. Let them speak–sure, if they must–let them retard progress if they’re able, let them benefit from the decisions of a reasonable consensus…but acknowledge them? What’s the point?
Things could go on like this forever, and peacefully, so long as the doers stay in the majority over the undoers. What’s disruptive is when the clowns don suits and begin cultivating a constituency who’ll give them power. What’s problematical is when the dressed-up nihilism of their heretofore fringe ideology is granted an aura of authority by a media system bludgeoned into submission by the sledgehammer of liberal bias. And what’s catastrophic is when they win, raze the school, and declare a season of unending recess. “But it’s storming out,” someone might protest, pointing to the darkened, rain-spattered window.
And the new leaders look too but say, “No it isn’t.”
Which is one of the things we don’t talk about, when we don’t talk about Republicans.